Writing A Song •
Introduction by Jim Liddane
Keith McCormack was born Dalhart, Texas, and started his career as a musician in the mid 1950s, playing guitar and singing with various rock and roll bands in Texas. One of these bands - The Rock 'N Rollers - was formed in 1956 by Richard Stephens and Jimmy Torres (both playing lead guitar), Keith himself on vocals and rhythm guitar, Aubrey de Cordova on bass guitar and Don Allen on drums. drums
Their music was characterized by twangy guitar riffs, catchy melodies, and a distinctive surf rock sound that was popular at the time, but having failed to achieve success with releases on local labels, they approached Norman Petty in Clovis, New Mexico.
After a number of unsuccessful vocal releases (some on Imperial), Petty, a successful composer in his own right, who had also produced hit records by Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and The Fireballs, presented them with an instrumental he had written titled "Wheels". He also became their manager, re-naming the band as The String-A-Longs.
"Wheels" was released on Warwick Records in December 1960 and reached number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The record ended up becoming the eighth best-selling single of 1961, hitting number 7 in the UK, selling more than seven million copies worldwide, and earning The String-A-Longs their first (and only) Gold Disc. Although the band had several minor hits in the early 1960s, including "Brass Buttons", "Twistwatch", "Should I" and "Mina Bird", they finally broke up in 1964.
Keith meanwhile, was also penning songs of his own, one of which described a quaint little place called the Sugar Shack, where people would go to dance, have fun, and enjoy sweet treats like candy, soda pop, and ice cream. The song's chorus was particularly memorable, featuring the refrain "There's a crazy little shack beyond the tracks, and everybody calls it the Sugar Shack."
Petty loved the song and decided to offer it to another band he managed, The Fireballs. They were a purely instrumental act which had achieved several big hits like "Torquay", "Bulldog" and "Quite A Party", but Petty added local session singer Jimmy Gilmer to the lineup, and they recorded the song in less than an hour.
Upon its release, "Sugar Shack" - by the newly-christened Jimmy Gilmer & The Fireballs - became an instant hit, reaching the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and staying there for five weeks. It also topped the charts in Canada and Australia. earning a Gold Disc, and becoming the biggest-selling single of 1963.
As it turned out, in one ten-minute session, Keith McCormack had written himself a multi-million-seller, and even though he has yet to repeat the trick, he's not all that disappointed, since that one song has proved to be a pension for life!
Danny Andrews spoke to Keith for "Songwriter Magazine"
Viewers of two major movies in the past few years, have heard Keith McCormack's biggest hit. They may even have silently sung along with the sound track. "Sugar Shack" written by Keith and his aunt, Fay Voss, has shown up in the Academy Award-winning "Forrest Gump" and in the movie, "Congo." It also was played in another recent release called "Dog Fight" and was featured several years ago in "Mermaid," starring Cher. McCormack, 57, now lives in Ash Grove, Missouri, and still dabbles in the music business. Mrs. Voss died six years ago.
"I was sort of living off "Sugar Shack,"' McCormack told me recently. "but now it's gotten real popular again." He has always been paid royalties from several songwriters associations but the use of his song - recorded by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs - in the movies and, subsequently, on video releases, means even more money for McCormack.
He also receives royalties from fees paid by radio stations, clubs playing records, karaoke bars, etc. "I figure 'Sugar Shack' has made me about a half a million dollars over the past 30 years. I usually got a check for $500 or $600 a month but it's been a lot better in the past couple of years and could be real good for the next year or two." He also wrote or was part of recording a couple of other chart makers but never really hit the "big time" other than with "Sugar Shack."
Through his teen and young adult years, he was part of several bands, eventually winding up under the tutelage of Norman Petty in Clovis, who had earlier handled the late Buddy Holly. Born in Dalhart, he and neighborhood friends Aubrey de Cordova and Richard Stephens all took guitar lessons and wound up "picking together in my uncle's back yard." His uncle was Johany Voss, a meat salesman who later operated several cafes in the area. Voss also enjoyed playing the guitar. Soon, Charles Jay Edmiston joined the trio as a drummer but was replaced by Don Allen when he went to military school.
"We actually cut our first record as The Rock 'N Rollers in Amarillo with Charles Jay as the drummer," McCormack recalled. "After Don joined us, my mother saved up enough money for a master tape at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis. By this time, Jimmy Torres had joined us so we had three guitars, a bass and drums and were calling ourselves the Leen Teens.
Norman sold our recordings to Imperial which had Ricky Nelson and Fats Domino under contract, but they didn't sell very well," he recounted. McCormack and his mother were writing most of the group's material and "we kept going to Norman's studio every two to three months for a couple of years because he was our manager, so it didn't cost us anything.
On the way to Clovis one time, I got real hoarse and knew I couldn't sing, but Norman had an instrumental he had written and wanted us to record. Two or three months later, we got a letter from Norman who was in New York and he said he wanted to change our name to the String-A-Longs as he had sold the instrumental to Warwick Records".
Warwick had bought "Wheels," one of the songs recorded a couple of months earlier in Clovis. Strangely, the person pressing the records reversed the labels and the song originally intended as "Wheels" got the other recording's name and vice-versa! Nevertheless, "Wheels" was a big hit. "Our version alone sold 7 million copies worldwide but we didn't get a dime because Warwick went bankrupt," said McCormack. "That kind of thing happened a lot back then. Of course, you still hear that song on the oldies stations (an Amarillo furniture company, used it for years with all its commercials)."
The String-A-Longs went on several promotional tours into the Midwest and even into Canada, including a stint with Anita Bryant. They also cut an album called "Pick A Hit" which got into the top 50 sellers for a while. That has been re-released in a 25-song CD by Ace records in Great Britain which specialises in re-releases. "But we weren't getting paid much and we were kind of disgusted. If this was what being stars was all about, we didn't want it," McCormack said with a laugh.
The group did come back hom to play as an opening act for a local who also made it big - Jimmy Dean - at the old City Auditorium and stole the show that night. "Aubrey wanted to finish college and Richard wanted to sell real estate in Colorado but I still wanted to do music," said McCormack. A quick trip to California and the re-establishment of the String-A-Longs with other musicians to play clubs, dances and concerts for a year in Corpus Christi preceded a parting of the ways with Norman Petty as the group's manager. However, McCormack continued to write songs on his own and with Mrs. Voss.
Recalling the writing of "Sugar Shack." McCormack said, "I kind of wrote the song in a few minutes, ad-libbing it straight through one night in Faye's living room. But I couldn't remember what you called those tight pants girls wore at the time (leotards) so I asked my aunt, and we kind of finished the song together. "Actually, I though 'Sugar Shack' was kind of silly and it was quite a while before I even did it for my mother, although I did demo it over at Norman Petty's Clovis studio".
Then unbeknownst to McCormack, Gilmer and the Fireballs recorded "Sugar Shack" while McCormack was in California. "It was all kind of one big family over at Clovis and Jimmy Gilmer who was from Amarillo and the Fireballs, who lived in Raton, New Mexico, already had a couple of instrumental hits with 'Torquay' and 'Bulldog.' I firmly believe there has to be the right chemistry for a hit and, listening to 'Sugar Shack,' it seems as if everything was right the night they did it, I guess."
On the Dot label, "Sugar Shack" sold 1,340,000 singles in the first six months of that year, the only song to sell more than 1 million. "Hey Paula" by Paul and Paula sold a million but was released in October so sales were over two years while "Dominique" was supposed to have sold a million but really only sold about 500,000" he explained. On the momentum of the hit, McCormack and his mother wrote Gilmer's follow-up "Daisy Petal Picking" which made it to the Top 20 and "Cinnamon Cindy," written by McCormack got to the Top 50.
McCormack then got what looked like a big writing break with Jimmy Bowen who also had started out in Clovis along with Buddy Knox when they were both students at West Texas State University. Bowen, who later went on to run Liberty Records in the Garth Brooks era, had turned down "Sugar Shack" but remembered McCormack and asked him to write for the Reprise label which included Frank and Nancy Sinatra and Dean Martin. "They were supposed to be reviewing my material, but nothing seemed to happen" said McCormack.
Meanwhile, he and Mrs. Jordan wrote a song called "You Bug Me" which he recorded with his brother, Terry, Mrs. Jordan and her son Kenny. "Dot got it pressed and distributed nationwide in a couple of days. It was hot for about three days and then died on the vine," McCormack said. He and Mrs. Jordan also wrote "Spring Has Sprung" and "Stumbling Stone" which were released by Dot and another song, "Mary Ann Thomas," showed promise but never went anywhere "A lot of things were about to work out, when all of a sudden, they just died".
McCormack took Gilmer's place when Gilmer finally quit the Fireballs and he sang with the group for six years. While touring with the Fireballs, McCormack settled in Springfield, Missouri and now lives with his wife and son Malley, 32, in Ash Grove. He quit playing clubs in the area in 1991. "I still write songs and Malley and I have a recording studio," said McCormack. Thinking again about "Sugar Shack," he recalls with a laugh: "We wrote that song in three or four minutes. It was an accident really but I wish to hell I could have another one!"
Copyright International Songwriters Association, Songwriter Magazine and Danny Andrews. All Rights Reserved.
Norman Petty produced the hit recording of "Sugar Shack" as well as playing that cute little organ riff throughout the song. He also produced and wrote the song "Wheels" which was a massive hit for Keith McCormack's band The Stringalongs.
HERE for an interview with Norman Petty
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ISA • International Songwriters Association (1967)
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