Curtis had not performed in front of a crowd like this in nearly 20 years, but when he stepped up to the microphone at the Royalty Ballroom in London, the former and future rockabilly ace came face to face with an audience that seemed as though it were sprung from a time capsule, a glorious image freeze-framed in his head during the decades he'd been away. Curtis had heard from a friend in Los Angeles for whom he recorded, Rollin' Rock Records owner Ronnie Weiser, that he and his rockabilly peers were revered in England, but he didn't believe it. Not until December 15, 1977.
In the United States, rockabilly came and went in a brilliant flash in the mid-'50s, committing the stars to legend and the unsung heroes to obscurity. But in England the music flourished, spawning a dozen generations and resurrecting a dozen anonymous heroes who deserved better.
And there they were, all lined up that night for Mac Curtis, hundreds of kids done up Teddy Boy-style, wearing T-shirts and flattops and greaser jackets, stomping and shouting for 20-year-old songs like "You Ain't Treatin' Me Right" and "Goosebumps" and "Say So." They had come to pay homage to a man they had revered from afar for years, this Texas boy they liked as much as Elvis.
"Nobody knew some of us could still perform," Curtis recalls now. "[Austin rockabilly bassist] Ray Campi and I were amazed, because we went over there not knowing what to expect. It was a promotional trip, sort of experimental, and we figured it'd be guys our age, ya know? But here are all these guys with their haircuts and ducktails and all that good stuff...It's a way of life for those people in that part of the world. They appreciate you for what you did regardless of how large or small it was."
With that initial tour of England, and the subsequent trips that followed throughout the '80s and '90s, the Fort Worth-born Mac Curtis became the star he never was in the States. His albums, new and old, are released only in Europe; his shows sell out, his songs drive the kids crazy, but here he's merely an anonymous voice-over on Channel 4 and KPLX-FM. Curtis even deserves a large part of the credit for resurrecting the likes of Ronnie Dawson, having told Dawson of the British kids' love for and appreciation of his old music. Until last year, Dawson's CDs were also only available overseas.
But unlike Dawson--who never took a day job outside of performing, whether he was cutting jingles or playing with his country-rock band--Curtis rarely ever stepped in front of a microphone or strapped on a guitar. Though he was no Sid King (who now cuts hair in Richardson) or Groovy Joe Poovey or Johnny Carroll (both of whom grew up and pursued day jobs outside of rock), Curtis did manage to keep his hands in the music business. But he mostly played records, his career as a disc jockey and voice-over man spanning more than four decades. He did not make records.
Curtis was born in Fort Worth in 1939 and raised in Olney. At 12, he bought his first guitar and performed in a local talent contest. In 1954 he moved to Weatherford, where he put together his first band with brothers Kenneth and Jimmy Galbraith, playing the hillbilly and R&B hits of the day. They were a cover band, for the most part, accidentally fusing the two styles of music--country and blues--because it seemed natural. They had yet to hear of Sun Records, yet to discover Elvis and Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins; but when they did, Curtis said, "it sorta justified everything we were doing."
In the early '50s, Curtis and his band tried to get on with the Big D Jamboree at the Sportatorium, which booked artists after they had proven themselves on the Grand Ole Opry or the Louisiana Hayride. But Curtis initially ran into resistance from the folks at the Big D Jamboree, who still favored country over the new "cat music." He recalls they were "stand-offish" about booking younger bands until Elvis and Carl Perkins came along--which was ironic because Gene Vincent's manager Ed McLemore owned the Sportatorium. Yet when the Jamboree finally came around to rockabilly, booking established acts like Elvis and Perkins and a newcomer like 16-year-old Ronnie Dawson, Curtis was about ready to head into the military.
But not before he landed a deal with Syd Nathan's legendary King Records label out of Cincinnati, which had some hillbilly acts but rose to prominence with R&B artists like Dallasite Freddie King, the Dominoes ("Sixty-Minute Man"), and James Brown (who initially recorded for the King subsidiary Federal). Curtis, who was signed on the spot in 1956 to King after KNOK-AM disc jockey Big Jim Randolph arranged a two-song tryout with label A&R man Ralph Bass, would join Charlie Feathers, Hank Mizell, and Joe Penny as the label's best-known rockabilly artists.
Shortly after signing, Curtis and his band rushed over to Jim Beck's studio on Ross Avenue and cut their first sides, which included "If I Had Me a Woman," "Just So You Call Me," "Half Hearted Love," and "Grandaddy's Rockin'." During the next few months, they recorded a total of 16 songs, all but two of which were released on seven singles. They exist now in the collections of the fanatics who swear Curtis was as good as Elvis--that he'd have been as big as the King or the Killer or Carl Perkins if given half the promotion of Sun or RCA artists.
To hear them four decades hence, though, is to discover that Curtis did indeed rank with the best of the lot: On "If I Had Me a Woman," his voice quivers with honest desperation; "The Low Road" transcends the bass-slap-happy genre with its tremolo and piano and sad whistle; and "Don't You Love Me" bristles with boogie and a half-hollered vocal. If rockabilly exists in a time warp, as critic Peter Guralnick once wrote, forever trapped in the mid-'50s, then the good stuff even now manages to escape the history books unscathed, whether it's "Blue Suede Shoes" or "Be-Bop-A-Lula" or Curtis' "You Ain't Treatin' Me Right." (Curtis' King singles are available on the import-only Charly disc Blue Jean Heart.)
But despite the quality of many of his King records, the label didn't do much with them, and when he went into the Army in 1957 and was shipped overseas, becoming a DJ for the Armed Forces Radio Network, Curtis asked out of his King contract.
"I pretty much figured I had just about ended my career," he says now with a slight laugh.
It wasn't until nearly 20 years later--after signing on again with the Big D Jamboree in the early '60s as a country artist, after a few more tries at performing and recording with Major Bill Smith in Fort Worth and even Epic Records for a brief time, after a respectable career as a disc jockey in Atlanta and Los Angeles--that Curtis discovered he was more than a footnote in rockabilly's brief, glorious history. While living in L.A., Ronnie Weiser contacted him and suggested recording Curtis to four-track in his living room with another lesser rockabilly great, Austin's Ray Campi. The result was a series of raw and electrifying singles on Weiser's Rollin' Rock label, which were released in Europe only. (They've just been issued on an European-only CD, compiled as The Rollin' Rock & Rebel Singles.)
Curtis, whose flattop with the cowlick in front was once known as the style that launched a thousand haircuts, is content now only to play in Europe. He has no future gigs planned in Dallas or anywhere else, though he's not opposed to the idea. But he knows rockabilly came and went a long time ago, and he with it, and he does not kid himself about why he's an icon abroad and anonymous at home.
"I think the [kids in Europe] identify with that style, the rebelliousness of the music," he says. "When we're over there in Europe, they sort of have this vision that this still goes on every day. If they came to the United States, they think they would go down to some big hall and see Ronnie Dawson perform or go see Mac Curtis. They still think it's like it was until they come here and see it, and then they're surprised and disappointed.
"Then it makes the music more precious to them. They're like, 'Well, they've turned their backs on their own people, and now it's up to us to keep these guys alive.' And I guess they sorta do.