Writing A Song •
Introduction by Jim Liddane
Dallas Frazier was born in Spiro, Oklahoma, but was raised in Bakersfield, California. At the age of twelve, he received his parents' permission to go on the road as a guitarist with famed country star Ferlin Husky. Two years later, he would cut his first solo record in Los Angeles at the tender age of 14, and would go on to score a US Number 1 as a songwriter just three years after that when his song "Alley Oop", recorded by the Hollywood Argyles, topped the charts worlddide, selling in excess of two million copies.
Moving to Nashville the following year, Dallas embarked upon an enviable career as a tunesmith, his songs being recorded by such stars as George Jones (who recorded an entire album of Frazier's songs in 1968), Diana Ross, O. C. Smith, Engelbert Humperdinck, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jack Greene, Connie Smith, Willie Nelson, Brenda Lee, Carola, Charley Pride, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Gene Watson, Elvis Presley, Moe Bandy, Roy Head, Charlie Louvin, Rodney Crowell, Dan McCafferty, Poco, Ronnie Hawkins. The Oak Ridge Boys, Emmylou Harris, Anne Murray, Glen Campbell, George Strait, Randy Travis, and Patty Loveless.
Amongst his best known songs are "There Goes My Everything", "Elvira" and "All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)", each of which has sold more than one million copies.
Meanwhile, he continued to record, scoring eight country hits as a vocalist, even as his songs for other singers were being nominated for three Grammy Awards, and he himself was being inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
And then, just two years later, without warning, he suddenly quit the music industry to become a minister of religion.
Larry Wayne Clarke interviewed Dallas Frazier for the International Songwriters Association's publication "Songwriter Magazine".
On a recent Saturday in August, some 200 people seated comfortably in the Ford Theatre in Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum bore witness to a most remarkable event: for about an hour venerable songwriter Dallas Frazier - a 1976 Hall of Fame inductee - spoke of his career and sang a number of his hit songs, accompanied by his own gospel-tinged piano chords.
Frazier is a persuasive and likeable
man, armed with an evangelist’s zeal, a raconteur’s sense of delivery, a gently seductive smile and, most important, a generous trove of songs that have become classics in several genres. So it’s no surprise that his audience that day - largely made up of camera-toting tourists lucky enough to stumble upon a show that came included with their museum admission, as well as a sprinkling of country music luminaries including Dickey Lee, Ferlin Husky, Whitey Shafer, Oak Ridge Boys leader Duane Allen, and others - were clearly delighted with the program and its star.
After all, it’s not hard to engage a crowd when your material includes super-sized fare like “There Goes My Everything” (a hit for Jack Greene and Engelbert Humperdinck that won a CMA award and a Grammy in 1967), “What’s Your Mama’s Name” (Tanya Tucker), “Elvira” (Oak Ridge Boys), “Alley Oop” (the studio-coined Hollywood Argyles), “If My Heart Had Windows” (George Jones, Patty Loveless) and Charlie Rich’s “Mohair Sam.”
But those in the know, especially those whose own histories run parallel with Frazier’s singular story (beginning in the early ’50s when he became a 12-year-old member of Ferlin Husky’s show), understood the true significance of the event. Which is that Frazier, who retired from non-secular music many years ago to become a minister, was giving his first performance in perhaps decades. Dallas Frazier had, at last, returned to the fold.
Frazier’s material runs the gamut from inspired silliness to dark tales of heartbreak and explores much that lies in between, but through it all we hear the uncontainable joy of someone doing what he was destined to do. Whether it’s the zestful carnival stomp of “Elvira,” the baleful country ache of “There Goes My Everything” or the cartoonish jive-speak of “Alley Oop” (based after all on a comic strip character), the melodies spring from a born tune forger whose wordplay, even when the subject is sad, seems to hold the trace of a smile. This man was an evangelist long before he took to the pulpit.
I’ve wanted to interview Frazier for years and was delighted when he agreed to meet me on a beautiful October day. We meet for lunch at a Calhoun’s (“Best Ribs In America!”) restaurant in Madison, Tennessee.
He apologises once or twice for “gettin’ on my soapbox” but in fact this is a minister (he holds a BA in Christian Education and a BA in Theology from Emmanuel Bible College) who is hardly prone to dangling
his faith from his sleeve. A brief grace offered before our meal, not in the least unusual in the South, is as close as he’ll come to preacher-like behaviour during our two hours together. Some of that conversation follows....
When you did your performance at the Hall of Fame, how long had it been since you’d done something like that? Somebody said 20 years.
Well, that wasn’t quite right. I did one thing a few years back for Tin Pan South. I did an appearance.
At the Ryman?
At the Ryman, yeah.
What they call their Legends concerts?
Something like that. But this was probably the first time that I was spotlighted doing a show, a Dallas Frazier thing, in a long, long time. I would say it’d been more like maybe 30 years, you know. I’m saying that . . . I hope I don’t think of something I did 23 years ago [laughs]. But I’m thinking it would probably be right at 30 years because I more or less took a sabbatical at the first of ’76.
In ’76 were you a recording artist?
No, I wasn’t recording then. I was still writing but not recording at that time.
How many record deals have you had?
I was with Capitol twice. I cut for RCA and 20th Century Fox and Mercury. Mercury and 20th Century, I only had a release on those things - a one-record deal more or less. And I had two albums out on Capitol and two albums on RCA. My recording career is not all that much to crow about.
Did you like being a recording artist? Being on the road?
No, not the road. I was the kind of guy, I loved the music but I liked the studio. I liked going to the studio to cut, all that kind of stuff. When I was a kid . . . I started in this business when I was 12 years old.
You were a Termite.
Yeah! [laughs] Terry Preston and the Termites. [note: Terry Preston was Ferlin Husky’s stage name until 1953] But I was just eat up with it then. I just wanted to be out there all the time doing this and doing that, singing and what have you. But as I got older I didn’t like to do that all that much. Maybe it’s because I was being successful as a songwriter. Maybe that was it. But I just got to where I didn’t want to go out there. I didn’t want to go travelling. I wanted to stay at home and do my thing, in Nashville.
There must be something very seductive about going out to your mailbox and finding a royalty check with an Engelbert Humperdinck hit on it, and a few other things.
And you haven’t had to fight with a promoter for your money.
That’s right. You know, songwriters, they have some unique privileges. Some real benefits that the other guys don’t have. For instance, a songwriter, he can get by with a pair of Levis for the most part. Well, I used to say that to make a point, but now the entertainers wear T-shirts and Levis.
Yeah, on purpose. But in the old days you had to have a uniform. It was costly. You had to have your buses and what have you. It’s more costly now.
Tim McGraw and people like that, they’re travelling like rock stars with a squad of buses and roadies and audio-visual equipment.
Yeah, a humongous staff and expenses and all of that. But my point is that a songwriter, he can get by without having to put on a front. His equipment is just minimal. It’s his favourite instrument, a pencil and a pad and a hundred-dollar tape recorder.
Probably somebody reading this will see how outdated I am! I don’t even know some of the terminology, Larry, that they use today ’cause I’ve been out of sync for a long, long time.
I still write with a pencil. You can’t erase pen!
It feels right. I don’t use typewriters.
Probably the big change among younger writers is they’re using laptop computers to write their lyrics, and they can even record on them.
Oh yeah. Well, I’m not good with technology so that wouldn’t do me any good.
I don’t like seeing those things. To me it’s a distraction. If somebody’s sitting at a screen typing I don’t feel I have their full attention.
You know I really believe - and I read something about this one time so I don’t want to take credit for it being original - but when you write something with your pen or your pencil it’s coming out of you, you
know. You’re forming it. There’s something to that. I don’t believe in hocus-pocus but there’s something to that, that you’re taking the time to form those words. I like that; I like that thought.
I think that’s true.
I do too. I can’t explain it but I do.
Your handwriting, however good or bad it may be, is entirely your own. That’s like a fingerprint; it identifies you. Whereas somebody typing on a keyboard, there’s nothing individual about that.
But a songwriter, his tools and what it costs him to go to work, are probably at the very, very low end of the scale.
And I totally agree, a songwriter can sit around in his underwear, he can be 80 years old and nobody cares. What you look like, whether you’re male or female.
And for the most part nobody knows who you are, anyway.
As long as the product speaks to the listener. If you have that going on you have, I think, a tremendous amount of persuasiveness as a writer. It amazes me that there are little kids walking around now who’ll hear something like “do-wah-diddy-dum-diddy-do” and they’ll know it! Stephen Foster songs - “doo-dah.” Those little hooks last for generations.
Sometimes being simple like that, having the simplest structure in a song, simple rhythms and funny little words - one you’ve just invented yourself or whatever - sometimes that makes or breaks the song, you know. A lot of times you never know when it happens but sometimes you’re purposely trying to hook a hit with something like that.
Chuck Berry would make up words. I think Chuck Berry is essentially a country songwriter. “As I was motorvatin’ over the hill” in “Maybellene.” And then he makes up the word “coolerator” in “You Never
Can Tell.” There was something delightful about that ’cause you can feel his delight in doing it.
I think he had a sense of humour. I liked his work. I don’t know what he’s doing now but he sure left some deep impressions.
You wrote “Alley Oop.” I just loved that on the radio as a kid. I thought that was the most infectious, grooving thing. I just loved it - and it doesn’t surprise me that you wrote “Mohair Sam” because they kinda spring from the same place.
Well, they’re character songs and I like that. I’ve got several songs in the same bag like that. “Clawhammer Clyde,” “Moonshinin’ Minnie,” “Big Mabel Murphy,” “Mohair Sam.” I like character names.
Where did that love of character writing come from?
You know what, I don’t know, Larry. I’ve got one idea: I had an uncle about six years older than me. He’s gone now. And when I was about, oh I don’t know, 10 or 11 years old - he was about 16 - he played and sang
country things. He had a real good sense of humour. His name was Matin Loughlin: M-A-T-I-N [pronounced like Latin]. Matin Loughlin.
That’s an interesting name.
Yeah. It’s a different name. He was my mom’s kid brother. But anyway Matin really inspired me. He had a real sense of humour, laughed a lot and told jokes and what have you. Funny, funny guy. But he was the only
one in my family that I remember being musical at all. He was the only one that influenced me when I was a kid. So if I owe anybody I owe my Uncle Matin for helping me.
Were you a reader? Were you reading, I don’t know, Mark Twain . . .?
No. No, ’cause I started writing when I was about 10 or 11 years old, you know. I don’t remember reading but I just remember a gift for alliteration and hearing rhythms and stuff. I had a gift. I wrote a song when I was 11 years old called “Tongue Tied Tenderfoot Dave.”
Right there you can see it.
Yeah. So it was coming out then . . . Tongue Tied Tenderfoot Dave.
And you had a melody with it and everything?
Yeah. Yeah, I had a little melody.
And you were a player at that early age, weren’t you?
Well, I started playing guitar. I didn’t know much guitar but I started banging around on it when I was about 12. Somewheres in there, 11, 12.
This was in Oklahoma where you’re from?
No. I’m from Oklahoma but this was in California. My folks left Oklahoma. We were part of the Grapes of Wrath migration movement that left Oklahoma and went out to California. My dad was a labourer in agriculture, he and my mom. And we had a rough time when we went to California. We lived in a tent for a while out in the desert, and we lived in an abandoned boxcar for a while when I was a kid.
That is right out of "The Grapes of Wrath"!
Yeah, it was pretty rough.
How many were you?
Just me and my sis and my mom and dad. We moved out there and finally things did get better after a year or two in California. We kinda moved back and forth too to Oklahoma. I moved a lot when I was a kid; I don’t even remember all the places we lived.
Yeah, very. Moved back out to California when I was about six or seven years old and stayed there until ’62. I moved to Portland, Oregon in ’62, and then I left Portland and moved to Nashville. In the fall of ’63.
So California is where the music thing started to come into blossom.
And the Termite episode.
Yeah. I started writing and when I was about 12 years old I entered a talent contest that Ferlin Husky was having. He had this talent contest in Bakersfield at an old dance hall called Rainbow Gardens, and I won the contest. And that night Ferlin offered me a job to come and work with him and sing and be a part of his outfit.
Was he a pretty big star at this time?
No, Ferlin was just getting started. He was just a local guy and had a band, had a little radio show. Thirty minutes a day or something like that. It was just local stuff. But he was recording and he was getting bookings every once in a while. I remember going to Medford, Oregon with him one time and working a show up there. T. Texas Tyler was up there on the same show. When I was about 13 years old or so Ferlin left Bakersfield. He started getting hot with a record - I think it was “A Dear John Letter,” I believe. Anyway I couldn’t go with him and he moved, and I started working with a man named Herb Henson. “Cousin” Herb Henson.
But Ferlin . . . didn’t he almost adopt you?
Not really. He wanted to. I told him, I said, “Well, Ferlin, I’ve got a dad!” [laughs] He’s kinda like a dad in a way, Ferlin is.
Did you live at his place for a time?
Yeah, I lived with him. I graduated from the eighth grade while I was living with him.
So you kept on going to school.
Yeah, I kept going to school.
Were you part of his ensemble, playing behind him?
No, just singing.
So you were part of the show; he would bring you out and introduce you to do a few songs?
Yeah. It wasn’t anything big; it was just a start. Just the beginning.
You must have been liking all that attention.
Well, it was exciting for me. I thought it was the biggest thing ever. But I did move from that to a television show right there in Bakersfield called Trading Post Gang. That was Herb Henson’s show, and I started working that when I was about 14. And I signed with Capitol Records in that same year, about ’54. Had a couple of records out on Capitol that didn’t really do much. But back in those days, Larry, you could work if you were with a major label. It was enough strength to get bookings and get pretty good money. My handicap was my age; I couldn’t work in places that sold alcohol. That just about eliminated 90-odd percent of all the work so I didn’t really get a chance to work that much. But I did The Cliffie Stone Show in Los Angeles. I would commute back and forth from L.A. to Bakersfield; it’s about 125 miles. I’d do that on Saturday nights. I did that four years and got to work with a lot of well-known people on that show. Tennessee Ernie Ford, and a bunch of well-known people.
At that point was it your intention that this would be your career?
Yeah. I had my heels dug in, as we say. I was determined to do something with it.
So you were going to high school at this point?
Yeah. I went to high school there in California and worked the weekends. Did a lot of mid-week TV stuff there in Bakersfield too.
Were you considered a fairly rare bird in high school? Here you were doing these shows and recording.
Yeah, it was kinda hard sometimes. I got flak for it, you might say. And then I had some good friends too because of it.
I would think you’d have gotten some good attention from it.
The girls liked it. [laughs]
That’s the oldest story in the book!
The boys were jealous.
Get in the music business and get the girls. I guess when you’re a teenager that’s a reward unto itself.
Yeah. But Cliffie Stone, he had the Hometown Jamboree in Los Angeles - I don’t know if you’re familiar with Cliffie?
Oh yeah, that name comes up all the time.
Kind of a pioneer.
Curtis Stone is his son.
Oh, Curtis is in town?
Curtis Stone - he was in that band Highway 101.
Oh, okay. I haven’t seen the kids . . . Steve, I knew Steve well but I haven’t seen Steve in years. Cliffie’s oldest son.
So yeah, I’m very familiar with Cliffie Stone. Seminal character.
He helped a lot of people in California. Billy Strange worked with us on the show. Billy was, and is, a real talent.
Arranger, guitar player.
Fantastic guitar player. And great singer.
I’m aware of a lot of these names. Of course talking to people like yourself the same names come up again and again. It’s always been a fairly small community. So was it always country music with you?
No. And I’ll tell you, I love country music. But I’m not tied down. I don’t have anything in me that’s pushing me to be loyal toward country music. I don’t have that at all. I played trumpet when I was a kid for a good while and got into that more than any instrument I’ve ever played. I love blues. I like New Orleans music, and I like the old swingin’ blues like Big Joe Turner. “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” Old blues, you know, not just the rock ’n’ roll stuff, but blues. Maybe a 10-piece band-type blues. I love that stuff, and I like bluegrass. My taste is diverse when it comes to things like that.
Which is good in a songwriter.
Yeah, it’s helped me. I’d have never written “Mohair Sam” had I not felt something for rock and blues. I would have just stayed with my country ballads and uptempos. I’d have never written “Alley Oop,” you
know, had I been locked into just country music. ’Cause let me say it this way: that ain’t a country song! [laughs] I don’t know what kinda song it is! I think it’s in an “oop” category and that’s all I can say.
But it’s a country-friendly song. You know, the vocal’s right up front and it’s got that nice loping beat to it.
Do you remember how clear - Gary Paxton did the lead voice on “Alley Oop” - do you remember how clear it was?
Oh, it was a great recording.
Gary was good in the studio. He was. And he had some good ideas.
Very cool record. Still sounds good. So you were about 19 when you wrote that?
Living where at that time?
I wrote “Alley Oop” working at a cotton gin.
So how did you happen to be working at a cotton gin and where did the music go all of a sudden?
[laughs] Well, that was between jobs. Between music jobs I wound up at the cotton gin. My stepdad was a ginner in California and he lived on a cotton gin yard, like a 10- or 15-acre yard where you’ve got the big gin and the ginner has a little house there on the property. And since my stepdad was a ginner he offered me a job, and I needed some extra money. I’d just gotten married. So I got a job at the gin, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Hard work but it paid good. And I wrote “Alley Oop” working at that cotton gin. Down through the years I’ve noticed a lot of times I’m more creative when I’m busy, when I’m doing something like out maybe riding a tractor on my place or something. Just doing something.
I hear that so many times. People talk about writing songs while they’re mowing the lawn, driving - somebody mentioned vacuuming. I think it has something to do with the ambient noise, a certain amount of white noise around you; there’s something lulling about that. And also just being occupied.
Yeah, you’re engaged.
But there’s a part of your brain that will wander off and be abstract.
I think . . . you know, Larry, sometimes I’ve found that a songwriter - and I know you’ve experienced this too - a songwriter needs different settings for certain things. And I’ll explain that. Sometimes being engaged in something kinda boosts the creative activity; it gets you going. Driving or something like that. And then there’s a time too when you’re just getting your thoughts. I think my best time . . . well, you’ll have to edit
some of this stuff ’cause I’m a hum-hawer, okay?
Most people are, believe me.
For a man who’s made his living with words I have the worst time with words! But I have found there’s a time for just kinda sitting and meditating and coming up with ideas, and just maybe writing down a thought or a title or something like that. And then when I’m actually working on it I like to be moving; I like to be doing something.
And another thing too, writing by myself - I’ve done a lot of that - but it’s harder, because you don’t have your buddy with you. I have literally taken my wife with me - and this is kinda funny - because I’d just
bounce something off of Sharon. Sharon’s her name, and we got married when we were 18 years old.
Yeah, you’ve had a marriage last all these years, which is remarkable. Remarkable in any circumstance, but in this environment . . .
In this business, yeah. We had our 48th anniversary last June.
But I’d take her with me. I had this little cabin up on a farm, isolated you know, and it had an icebox and a couple of beds in there where we could lay down and sleep when we got tired - with co-writers, whatever. I’d take her with me sometimes just to have somebody in the cabin with me, you know. And I’d be sitting there - I had a piano - and I’d hit a lick and I’d say, “Well, honey, what do you think about that?” Something I really liked, you know, and she’d say, [doubtful voice] “Oh, I don’t know, maybe you oughta work on that a little bit.” I’d say, “What do you know about songwriting?” [laughs]
She’d just go back to knitting there and 15 minutes would go by and I’d ask her something else, you know: “Do you like the sound of this?”
But I said all that to say this, Larry: writing by yourself, a lot of times it’s kinda lonely. But there’s some songs a man needs to write by himself though. Not just because you want all the glory and all the credit; they’re just personal things. They’re in you and you oughta write ’em.
And also to confirm that you can do it.
Yeah, well sure. You don’t ever want to be half of an act, even if you have a good partner that helps you.
Once you’ve proven, at least to yourself, that you can do it then it becomes a matter of choice if you happen to do it with somebody else.
That’s right. I’ve had good co-writers. I wrote a lot with Doodle Owens, as you know, and Whitey Shafer.
Whitey was there at your Hall of Fame performance.
Yeah, he was. Peanut Montgomery - Earl “Peanut” Montgomery. Good friend of mine; we’ve written some things.
Is he the one that George Jones fired a shot at one time?
Yes, he’s the one. [chuckles] Oh boy. If we get into those kind of stories we’ll be here all day!
There’s a picture I’ve seen where you actually see the bullet hole in the car door!
I hear George is doing okay these days.
Didn’t he just turn 80?
Yes. And he just put an album out recently. He still sounds like George Jones. He’s lost that beautiful purity that he had. That’s become husky, succumbing to the years, but he’s still great.
Well, he’s a friend of mine. I haven’t seen him in ages though. There’s so many of the guys I haven’t seen. I used to be around George a lot. He’s truly talented.
And truly tormented.
What always has amazed me about George - and you’ll appreciate this - he was in the early days a pretty good songwriter. He wrote “Window Up Above” and that’s become a classic. Then he just stopped
writing! He became known as a singer, and a masterful one, and people were of course pitching him their
best work, and he just stopped writing. That always surprises me when somebody just stops doing it after
they’ve proven they’re capable. Maybe it’s that thing you were talking about: it’s lonely work and you
don’t get a round of applause at the end of it. Maybe he just doesn’t like the process very much or maybe
he didn’t have anybody he could bounce stuff off of. He did make some awfully good records.
Oh he sure did.
What’s he recorded of yours?
George has recorded quite a few of my songs. I don’t remember how many exactly. He did a tribute album to me, "George Jones Sings Dallas Frazier". I had several things that were Top Ten records by him. “I’m A People,” which was kind of a novelty thing. Whitey and I, we wrote “Tell Me Your Lying Eyes Are Wrong.” And then of course “If My Heart Had Windows.” We got a BMI award for that.
That’s a really great country song. I think I probably heard that first by Patty Loveless and then later by George Jones, oddly enough.
She did a good job on it. And George did too. He had a real good record on that. “If My Heart Had Windows” was probably the biggest thing I had by him. But I had a lot of other cuts on his albums.
I think having a whole album dedicated to you is quite a privilege. He didn’t do that for everybody.
Yeah, I don’t take things like that lightly when an artist does something like that. I appreciate that.
Well, go back to “Alley Oop.” So here you are, you’re working in a cotton gin and you’ve written this song. What happened then? How did that get on the radio for me to hear it?
Okay. There was a Chevron station right on Argyle Street and, I think, Hollywood Boulevard - or was it Sunset? [note: it was Sunset] And there was a guy named Happy that ran that service station. I gotta tell you this part because that was the local “office” for all the songwriters. They’d come in there and use Happy’s telephone ’cause nobody had a dime anyway, you know, to make calls with. And this old guy was an old motorcycle guy. He was a big old guy and he liked the young guys that were trying to . . . He was helping out, kinda like a dad. But anyway, I ran into Gary Paxton at that service station and it was right next door to a studio. And we got to talking and before long I said, “Well hey, I got something I want you to hear.” So, just to cut it short, I played it for him - and I played the thing kinda in the style he did it. It was this . . . well, just kinda jazzing it up, okay? And he kinda dramatised it and really emphasised certain words and all of that, which I think made
it funny. But anyway, he cut it and I doubt if it was 10 days before it was just, like, making a smash across the country. It was just a real short term till it was on the air. And you know what, Larry? When we heard it it just had to be a hit. The only thing that would’ve kept it
from being a hit is if nobody’d heard it, you know. It was one of those things. It was hooked; we had the cut on it. And I was there the night they cut it. I was actually part of it.
Were you playing on it?
No, I didn’t play. I was there in the studio. Might have been one of the guys singing in the background.
There were a lot of “ah-ooo”s in that bridge.
And there was a guy, I think his name was Sandy Nelson...
Oh the drummer!
Yeah. “Teen Beat.”
Yeah, he had huge records of his own. “Let There Be Drums” and others.
Yeah! He played on “Alley Oop” and he was the one who screamed into a big ol’ garbage can, stuck his head in and screamed in it for that one line: “Look at that caveman go-o-o, ah-ooo!” You know, screamed real loud. It was a sight!
And we probably cut the whole thing, Gary did - I mean it was his deal - but I bet he cut it for less than two hundred dollars! In those days you cut and then, you know, sometimes you paid the guys when you sold the record or whatever. And we were doing business with this little studio there and they were lenient with us. But anyway, it was back in those days when you could do things on what we call a shoestring, just with no budget at all.
So how long did it take you to quit the cotton gin?
Oh I was quit by then. It was a seasonal thing. The cotton comes in and they gin it and it’s done. It lasts maybe about three to four months. I moved back to L.A. then.
So you were 19, married and had a hit song under your belt. You didn’t have a record deal at that time?
No. No. I cut a couple of records on - I say a couple; I remember one - I can’t even remember the label right offhand, but nothing come of it. But those were the days when a lot was going on in L.A. It was just vibrating with music and a lot of ’em were young kids, you know. That guy . . . oh, the guy who wrote “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” what’s his name?
Phil Spector. Yeah, Phil was out there. I remember meeting Phil one night. I was over at Lester Sill’s house and Lester was a big name in the business back then.
They had a label together. Philles Records.
Yeah. And Lee Hazlewood was a friend of mine. I met Lee in ’54 over in Phoenix. He was a deejay. He was a good friend of mine and he and Lester Sills were in business together too.
Talented guy. What became of Lee Hazlewood? Is he still alive?
You know what, I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything about Lee in a good while. Could be that he’s retired or taking it easy. I think he’s got a daughter that lives down in Florida. I don’t know if he’s down there or still in Vegas; he lived in Vegas for a long time. [note: Now 77, Hazlewood continues to record and perform, and published a book, The Pope’s Daughter, in 2003.]
He had a fabulous career for a few years there with all the Nancy Sinatra things. Did an album with Frank Sinatra.
Yeah. Lee, he’s a real thinker, you know. He’s a very creative man.
So you were in the thick of this California thing. What was the next big step for you?
Well, I never had anything else happen after “Alley Oop.” Nothing real big. What happened from there, I started going to church in ’61 and I kinda left the music business and moved up to Portland, Oregon. My wife’s folks were up there and we just decided to move up there, and I worked a day job up there in a music store. And then Ferlin came through and I was ready to go back. I mean I wanted to get in the music business again - I didn’t do anything in it while I was in Portland - and he asked me if I’d like to have a job back here.
I said, “Yeah, I’m ready.” So he moved me back. Me and Sharon, and we had two little girls by then. This was in ’63. He moved me back and I wrote a song. My first chart song here was “Timber I’m Fallin’.” It was in the Top Ten; it was a BMI award song.
Who recorded that?
Ferlin did. Then I wrote “There Goes My Everything” when I first got back here but it was a couple of years before it did anything. It was a couple of years before Jack cut it.
That was a big, big record in two genres.
Yeah, it was. It’s my biggest copyright. By far the biggest, because it’s had such staying power over the years and a lot of people have cut it. I don’t even know how many times it’s been cut, but that turned out to be a real good thing for me.
And before that I had “Mohair Sam.”
Didn’t you write that one the morning you pitched it?
Yeah. Ray Baker came by my house the same morning.
Ray Baker figures very large in your life, doesn’t he?
Yeah, he does. I met Ray not long after I came to town, maybe a year or so, and he was working for Mary Reeves at that time. Well, he worked for Jim - he was a friend of Jim Reeves but Jim got killed shortly after I moved here. But anyway, Ray was working for Jim Reeves Enterprises and I met him and we became friends. We used to sit around and have a beer together, you know, in Madison where we lived. And he wanted to start his own company and he asked me would I be interested in it. “Yeah; yeah I would be.” I liked him, and we got together. And he did start his own company and from there it started happening for us, because he was hungry and I was too. I mean not literally but figuratively. We were hungry and that’ll push you. That’ll motivate you. So he got out and started pounding the sidewalk and it started working.
But anyway, long story short, “Mohair Sam” . . . I wrote that while I was still working for Jim Reeves Enterprises - they have the copyright on that - and Ray was still working for Jim Reeves Enterprises. But anyway he came by the house - it was in the evening, like five or six o’clock—and he said, “Dallas, Charlie Rich is cutting. I told him you had a smash for him. “ And I said, “Well, what’d you have in mind, Ray?” And he said, “Well, I don’t know. I figured you could come up with something.” [chuckles] Now he would do this to me every once in a while, you know. But it was a motivator, okay? I started working on it, trying to come up with something. And I couldn’t think of anything so I went to bed. I got up real early in the
morning - four-thirty, five o’clock, something like that - and I started working. I had an old upright in a little old asbestos shingle house there in Madison and I sat down and started pounding on it, and it just wasn’t happening. But finally it did. I just got this . . . you know, a lot of times I’ll start thinking of riffs, just like horn riffs or something. But it come together and when it come together, it just come!
And “Mohair Sam” - that title just popped out of the blue? You didn’t have that written down?
No. It wasn’t like an old idea that I dug up and started working on. It just came, you know.
That was a big hit for Charlie Rich. It was a pop hit.
Yeah. And it got cut a lot. Quincy Jones, Peggy Lee. Several big people cut that song. Sea & Ski suntan lotion people, they did a commercial using the melody. But he cut it the next morning at 10 o’clock. Ray took it down there and he liked it and cut it. And it was a hit. But those kinds of things are few and far between. I’d have never had it if Ray hadn’ta pushed me a little bit, you know.
How did you come to write “There Goes My Everything”?
That had to do with a divorce story of a friend of mine. [ponders a moment] Well, that’s it.
Are you the only writer on that one?
So the co-written stuff doesn’t come until later in your career, it seems?
It was later, yeah. I wrote, like, “Alley Oop,” “Mohair,” “There Goes,” “Elvira,” “Big Mabel,” things like that - most of those songs I wrote myself. I wrote a lot of very successful songs though with Doodle and some with Whitey, and one with Peanut Montgomery. One with Larry Lee, “Fourteen Carat Mind.” I give credit to all those guys. They’re all writers in their own right and they carried their own weight, you know. All of ’em did.
So was this a really prolific time in your career, when you first arrived and worked with Ray Baker?
Yeah, prolific would be the right word, Larry. I don’t even know if I could do it again or not. You know how things how things are; some of it’s fate or destiny or whatever, but if I tried to do the same thing today it might not work at all. I don’t know.
But then - and I said that to say this - I saw an opening. I just felt it. I knew that I could do it. I felt I could. And you know sometimes that can work for you because you’re young and you’re kind of green even if you’re experienced, you’re still green. And a young guy, sometimes they just don’t know that they can’t. You know how that works? I wouldn’t even attempt it now even though I’ve got the experience under my belt and everything, I wouldn’t.
You don’t know your limitations at that age.
Yeah. I didn’t then; now I do.
You don’t know your limitations, therefore you work unlimitedly.
Yeah, you’d knock on the president’s door and say, “Hey, listen to this!” But I worked a lot. I worked hard, you know. As the expression goes, burning the candle at both ends. I not only worked hard, I played hard. I lived hard. I was a wild man for a good many years.
And your marriage sustained through this.
My marriage should have fell apart but it didn’t because of a forgiving wife, a sweet woman. And God just destined us to be together. But I did work hard, and it seemed like when I did quit in the first of ’76 I was truly exhausted. I was burned out, so to speak. But you know, speaking of working, the last year or so it’s been stirring in me again and I’m gonna do
something again. I’m gonna do something. I honestly believe - I can’t say this for a fact, of course - but I honestly believe that some of my best work will be coming.
I hope you’re absolutely right.
I don’t know what’ll happen with it. I don’t know anything about the level of success that it will attain. Whatever. Of course we don’t know those things, and I don’t know how accepted it will be. Some of it’s
gonna be very different. Some of it’s gonna be spiritual stuff and some of it will be secular stuff.
Well, during all your years of being a minister or pastor - what do you call yourself?
I’m a pastor now. I’m an ordained minister but I’m pastoring at the present time. Some people, they travel and do evangelist work and what have you; there’s different departments and different vocations ministers go into. But I’m a pastor at the present time.
But during these years have you been musical in a religious way? Have you been writing gospel songs?
No, I haven’t.
Not very much. A little bit, okay? A little bit. But I tell you what I’ve been doing, Larry: I’ve been reading and studying and I’ve been learning about life. And I’ve been storing up, you know. I’ve got some things in
me that it’s time for them to come out.
That seems to be a pattern when you look at your whole life. The church and - Yeah, you’re right. It’s happened to me once before. But I feel right now it’s not like I’m gonna quit the
church and go back to . . . that’s not what I’m doing. What I’m about to do is gonna be an extension of ministry in my writing in some ways maybe I can’t even explain right now. And I don’t mean just all gospel
songs. I think I’ll be writing songs about life. I feel like I have a green light in my heart to write about anything if it’s true. As long as it’s true.
Do you think you’ll be hooking up again with some of your friends from the past, like Whitey Shafer?
You know I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll write with any of the old guys or not. [laughs] They might not want to! I’ll be working on some of the things by myself because they’re things I have to write.
Do you currently have an active publishing company?
No, not yet.
What is your publishing history, after the Ray Baker thing?
Well, Ray sold his company to Acuff-Rose; Acuff-Rose sold to Sony. So Sony has my catalogue, because they bought Jim Reeves’s catalogue as well.
Sony has everybody’s catalogue!
They bought everybody’s. And there’s another company - you would know the company, I don’t. Is it B-G . . . BGM?
BMG. I’m behind on the initials. But I understand they bought the other half of the world!
Pretty much. RCA and BMG are joined now. Do you continue to get cuts on a fairly frequent basis?
You know I don’t stay in contact with ’em all that much but, yeah, I get cuts now and then on the old things. And hopefully I might get a second turn on something.
Copyrights are a beautiful thing.
I think a writer oughta write who he is and what he really feels. I was talking to a guy yesterday and we were talking about how so much of the business is cookie cutter. Somebody’ll say, “Oh, they’re not doing
that now. They are not playing those kind of songs.” Who are they? Dare to be a trendsetter is what I’m saying. Dare to write what you want to write. Dare to be who you are inside and let it come out. Put it on
paper. Because you know what? The songwriters, we are the trendsetters. If we write what we want to write the market’s gonna play it. And there are people out there who want to
Well, tell me this, continuing your philosophical bent. You seem to be a guy who has reformed himself in certain ways. What is it with people in the music industry - writers and performers - his whole thing of being drawn down the road to self-destruction? Is it just that temptation is there in abundance when you’re in that world, or is it something inherent?
I think some of it’s inherent, yeah. I believe it is. And some of it you acquire. And some of it’s just ignorance, you know. It really is. I’ve known so many people that lacked stability, really weren’t stable. And it seems like sometimes - and me being one of them, okay? I’m not pointing fingers at anybody; I’m just pointing out some facts - it seems like that life is something that you just can’t hardly handle. Especially sometimes when a little bit of success comes along. I don’t know. That’s a good question, Larry. I don’t know what drives people to be bent towards self-destruction like that. And some of them actually go the whole ways. You and I both could sit here and think of different ones in several different fields of music who went out of here before they’s 30 years old.
And then you have the ones that are lucky to still be around - George Jones right there at the top of the list.
Yeah. Eighty years old. You know, that’s amazing.
I think Nancy is owed a great deal of credit there.
That’s what I hear. Although even recently there was that car accident where he just about bought it again. That’s only a few years back. But from all reports he seems to have his demons harnessed now.
But it’s fascinating to me how many people seem to get to a point in their life where things are happening in an enviable way, they’re having some success, and yet you see them getting into bad drugs and drinking too much. It’s sad.
You know I don’t think there’s as much of it now. This could be a very naïve statement but it seems like 40 years ago that was the thing to do, you know. It was almost like you had to do that to be one of the boys, and I think that’s kinda died off. It seems like more of them are business minded now.
You’re right. In fact at times it almost goes a little too far in the other direction. You get there really, really clean-living types that graduate from Belmont and they’re approaching music as a career with full parental endorsement. They get involved in internships, they have personal trainers.
I don’t even know what you’re talking about! I mean, I do but I’m so far removed from that.
You get people who wouldn’t think of having a cigarette and in some cases will not touch a drink, let alone drink and drive. And yet they’ll get up and sing Hank Williams songs. It’s almost laughable in a way, their lifestyle is so far from the honky-tonk model. Years back everybody wanted to be Hank Williams. Hank Junior is still carrying that torch. Then we saw these guys, the Johnny Cashes and the Waylons, as they got older and got themselves under control and started giving out a different signal. But Keith Whitley. That’s still a fairly recent story. Literally drank himself to death.
He was young. I remember that.
Tremendous talent. He may be the last representative of that twisted honky-tonk ideal. People still romanticise that in a curious way.
Well, I’m very anxious to see what you come out with in the next few years. I bet it’ll be interesting and heartfelt and fun!
It’s gonna be fun. I know that! I’m gonna enjoy it. I’m gonna take my time with what I do. I was on a treadmill almost all my life with this music business, and I’m not getting on another treadmill. I’m gonna pace myself and take my time and and when I turn something loose I want it to be finished. I turned a lot of things loose that weren’t finished. [chuckles] And I guess we’ve all done that, you know. I finished up stuff on the way to the sessions before. Just cramming - putting in a word here and a word there.
Well, if “Mohair Sam” is any example it hasn’t always been a bad thing.
I can’t stand much more of that! Honestly, I’ve gotta quit that kind of stuff!
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