Rufus Thomas is not certain of the year--he figures it was 1943, though it might have been 1950--but he recalls the moment with astounding clarity. He was performing in Currie's Club Tropicana, a nightclub on the north side of Memphis, Tennessee, when a man walked through the door carrying a bulky tape recorder and a microphone.
The man, Jesse Erickson, introduced himself to Thomas and asked if he could set up and record the band for his record label, a tiny operation out of Dallas. Thomas had never heard of the label but agreed, and Erickson began rolling the tape, capturing two songs--the jump-blues of "I'll Be Good" and the bluesy "I'm So Worried."
When they were released, as Star Talent Records number 807, the 78 RPM single bombed. "The record sold five copies," Thomas says from his home in Memphis. "and I bought four of them."
Both songs, like the label for which they were recorded, have long faded from memory (if anyone actually cared to think of them in the first place), and Thomas no longer owns any of the four copies of "I'll Be a Good Boy," though he desperately wants one for his collection. His brief moment as a recording artist for Star Talent Records has long been eclipsed by greater moments of fame--as the first successful artist on Sam Phillips' legendary Sun Records label (his "Bear Cat," the answer to "Hound Dog," hit Number 3 on the charts in 1953), as the Stax recording artist who scored numerous Top 10 hits with the likes of "Walkin' the Dog" and "Funky Chicken," as one of the first disc jockeys on the all-black WDIA-AM station in Memphis.
Yet the 78-year-old Thomas, one of Memphis' best-known and best-loved exporters of soul, still remembers what it felt like to see his name on a record label--to hear his voice coming from the grooves for the very first time. In a career filled with monumental highlights, it was the first glimpse at what lay ahead.
"I was working in a club as a singer, and it was something I wanted to do," Thomas says. "It was a chance. I just wanted to make a record. I never thought of getting rich. I just wanted to be known, be a recording artist. At that time, we really didn't have a lot of big names with black artists anyway--not a lot. I just wanted to be on that record."
That Thomas can't recall the year of his recording debut is hardly surprising. After all, even those who knew Jesse Erickson well--the performers who recorded for the label, those who hung out at his daughter's record store on Oakland Avenue--recall little about the man. Or, for that matter, the label itself.
Like so many other tiny independent hillbilly labels that sprung up in Dallas from the 1940s through the early '60s (from Longhorn Records to White Rock Records), Talent/Star Talent came and went with little notice outside of town, and most of its tales remain buried underneath the parking lot at 3313 Oakland Avenue. Were it not for the fanaticism of a few men in England, where small collectors' journals document obscure Texas music as though each song were the Dead Sea Scrolls, Talent likely would be forgotten forever.
Yet Talent Records (which also released albums under the Star Talent banner) stands as one of Dallas' greatest contributions to the history of modern music. With little fanfare or recognition, it was among the first labels to do what made Sun Records and Duke/Peacock in Houston legendary, releasing albums by white country artists and black bluesmen. Its catalog encompasses music that defines the Texas sound--bringing together archaic country blues from Willie Lane, brassy Western swing from Hoyle Nix and His West Texas Cowboys, dirt-floor honky-tonk from Boots and His Buddies, and the cowboy balladry of Curly Sanders.
Talent was not only Rufus Thomas' initial recording home but, perhaps more importantly, the first label to feature the works of Roeland Byrd, a New Orleans piano-pounder who performed under the name of Professor Longhair. It was for Erickson's label that Professor Longhair (with his Shuffling Hungarians) recorded his immortal "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" and its follow-up "She Ain't Got No Hair"--both of which would become giant hits for Atlantic Records, both of which would lay the foundation for the rock and roll and rhythm-and-blues that still emanate from the Crescent City.
Star Talent's roster also included several unknown blues and gospel artists: the country bluesman Willie Lane, a former inmate in Huntsville and a one-time recording artist for the Library of Congress; Sonny Boy Davis, whose "Rhythm Blues" stands as one of the great lost treasures of Texas blues; Rattlesnake Cooper; Ella Mae Goins; the Jackson Gospel Singers; and Cha-Cha Hogan.
Though Erickson failed to possess the business sense or musical smarts of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, he managed to compile in a very short time a catalog of 78 RPM singles that would represent a condensed history of Texas music.
Erickson--who distributed records regionally through his daughter's record store, Louise's, on Oakland--began the label as a showcase for Dallas' myriad honky-tonk artists, releasing more than 70 country and Western swing 78s throughout its brief existence. At the time, Dallas was jumping with honky-tonk talent, performers who gravitated to the Big D Jamboree at the Sportatorium and the Longhorn Ballroom, once owned by Bob Wills his own drunk self. They would congregate at Jim Beck's studio on Ross or at Sellar's Studio on Commerce, sessionmen trading tales and waiting for their shot at the microphone.
Boots Bourquin, who recorded one of the first 78s on Talent Records ("Next Sunday Darling is My Birthday" / "Poor Little Joe"), recalls that Louise's Record Shop was, for a time, the greatest magnet of all. He says the first time he met Hank Williams and Little Jimmie Dickens, they were crossing Oakland heading for the shop; he remembers shaking Red Foley's hand at the store, and Boots' old pal Ernest Tubb was a regular.
"[Jesse] and Louise did a lot of advertising on the radio, and he wholesaled and retailed records," Boots says. "That was a pretty big thing because all them stars had records in there and would come by and meet him. He was a real nice guy, a real big guy--6-foot-4 and weighed 250. All these guys that was trying to get a start in country music, he'd record them. He had bunches of them...
"I met him at the Big D Jamboree. I was number one there, not braggin' or anything. I was getting 15, 20 encores there, and he come up and said, 'How'd you like to record on my label?' I said that'd probably be fine, and he said, 'Meet me at the record shop.' I signed a little contract with him, like for so much percentage on record sales. Just those two is all I recorded for him."
Talent Records' first five releases, in 1949, featured Buddy Walker, who worked at Louise's by day and sang hillbilly music at night. His first single, "Border Town Fiesta," is the only one that any of the old Blue Bonnet crew remembers, perhaps because it was a minor regional hit and one of the few Talent singles licensed to a larger distributor.
Most of the country artists who recorded for Talent were session musicians getting their first--and usually only--shot at fronting a band. Phillip Tricker, one of the few researchers and collectors who's spent time tracking down the minutiae on Talent, wrote in an English magazine that Joe Knight, who recorded one single ('Goodbye Will Be the Hardest Word to Say' / 'What Will You Gain'), is one of "the unsung heroes of country music."
Knight was best known around Dallas as a topnotch rhythm guitarist who recorded with Lefty Frizzell and Marty Robbins at Jim Beck's studio. George McCoy, a steel guitar player who backed the likes of Aline McManus and assorted other Talent artists at Beck's and Sellar's, was another guy who got his one shot--singing "Dallas Blue Waltz," a song even he has forgotten.
"That's going way back there," says the 71-year-old McCoy. "I'm tryin' to think who else was on the label--Riley Crabtree, Buddy Walker. Buddy was a little cocky when he was young, but most of us were. We thought we were somethin'. I guess you're entitled to a little fame, even if it's within yourself."
Bourquin recalls that Erickson kept the blues artists apart from the country boys. "The country part was separated from the blues part," he says. "Country went one way and that went the other."
But Talent Records wasn't the only label in Dallas at the time releasing blues and hillbilly records: Blue Bonnet Records, begun by Herb Rippa in 1947 (or close to that, as precious little information about that label exists), featured recordings by such honky-tonk greats as Waco native Hank Thom-pson and His Brazos Valley Boys (who would later achieve great fame on Capitol Records), Western swinger Al Stricklin (the pianist in Bob Wills' Texas Playboys), and Sheb Wooley (the Oklahoma native who lived in Fort Worth and later released albums on MGM, before he became an actor).
Like Talent, Blue Bonnet focused on country releases--its stable of artists included such obscure names as Bill Grubbs and the Oklahoma Ramblers, the Lone Star Playboys, the Texas Round-Up Gang, and Chuck Harding and the Colorado Cowhands--and its artists usually recorded at Beck's and Sellar's studios.
But, near the end of Blue Bonnet's three-year existence (it bears no relation to the Bluebonnet label out of Fort Worth in the '50s and '60s), Rippa began recording a handful of blues artists, the most notable being Frankie Lee Sims. Sims, who died in Dallas in May 1970 after decades of slumming in low-rent nightclubs as an unknown legend, cut at least two 78s for Blue Bonnet: "Cross Country Blues / Home Again Blues" and "Single Man Blues / Don't Forget Me Baby."
Though Sims recorded in the '40s and '50s, his style--harsh, rooted more in country--recalled the older bluesmen he had grown up listening to around Dallas and Louisiana as a kid; as such, he never managed to score well in the slicker urban markets, and couldn't make much of a living on the Chitlin' Circuit.
Yet Sims would influence a generation of younger performers, including the likes of Angela Strehli and Jimmie Vaughan. Former Blaster Dave Alvin cites him as one of his great mentors, often seeing him perform in small blues clubs for even smaller audiences.
"He was a major influence on me, especially on the Blasters stuff," Alvin says. "We cut one of his songs, 'What Will Lucy Do?' which was on an album of unreleased songs and B-sides of various artists released years ago. When I started writing songs, I was looking for a way of writing blues songs for my brother [Phil] to sing that wouldn't be generic blues songs. Frankie Lee Sims and Lazy Lester from Louisiana were two of the guys I gravitated to because the structures of their songs were kind of free and countryish. You can go play Frankie Lee Sims songs in a blues club and people don't think you're playing the blues."
What became of Blue Bonnet and Star Talent remains unanswered. As best Bourquin can recall, Jesse Erickson died in the mid 1950s--according to another hillbilly researcher, Chris Bentley, owing much money to the IRS and the Musicians' Union because he refused to pay scale--and Herb Rippa's label similarly just disappeared.
But the history of Dallas music is a tale dotted with dozens of near-misses and failed shots at something bigger, and a telling tale from Star Talent's past shows why Jesse Erickson's label was bound for obscurity.
Shortly after the release of Professor Longhair's "She Ain't Got No Hair" on Star Talent in 1950, it began climbing the Cash Box charts (the A-side hit number two; the B-side, "Bye Bye Baby," went to number nine). Mercury Records, aware of Longhair's popularity, had him cut a new version of "She Ain't Got No Hair" and release it under the name Roy Byrd and His Blues Jumpers. Erickson, desperately trying to keep retailers from selling the new version of the track, placed an ad in Cash Box claiming 'Fess had signed a three-year contract with Star Talent in November 1949.
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No matter. In the end, 'Fess became a superstar and made the folks at Mercury and Atlantic rich, and he never recorded again for Star Talent.
At the risk of winding up like ol' Jesse Erickson, the Observer has gotten in the business of releasing records--with, of course, only the best of intentions and causes in mind.
On April 12, the 18-song Dallas' Scene, Heard: Rare and Unreleased Tracks Compiled by the Dallas Observer will hit stores featuring never-before-heard and hard-to-find cuts by: Cafe Noir, Funland, the Toadies, Vibrolux, Spyche, the Fuzz, Josh Alan, Brave Combo with Lauren Agnelli, Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks, Henry Qualls, Ronnie Dawson, Sixty-Six, Liberty Valance, the Old 97's, Cowboys and Indians, the Earl Harvin Trio, James Clay, and Marchel Ivery with Cedar Walton. The disc, which will be available for $5.99 in your favorite record outlet, is dedicated to the late, great Texas Tenor James Clay, and all proceeds from the sale of Scene, Heard will go toward the creation of a local musicians' health-care trust fund.
Street Beat welcomes E-mail tips and comments at DalObserv@aol.com.