Posted February 28, 2000
For decades, Lew Williams has remained one of the most intriguing mysteries of rockabilly. His small body of work is well-known: six of his eight Imperial recordings from 1955-56 have been reissued at regular intervals since 1977, covered, even plagiarized.
Compilers and annotators like Bill Millar, who called him the "Cab Calloway of rockabilly," acknowledged that there was something unique about Lew Williams - an almost jazzy feel and jivey, cockeyed, sometimes daring and often surprisingly supple lyrics. Sides like Cat Talk, Centipede, Bop Bop Ba Doo Bop, and Something I Said have long been considered rockabilly or early rock and roll classics.
A lone article from the July 1957 issue of Folk And Country Songs established a very basic biography, but what became of him after that remained a tantalizing blank. . . until now, that is. Lew Williams is alive and well and may be coming to a festival near you.
The complete story of Lew Williams and the influences that shaped his music and his hepcat jargon is told in the notes accompanying the Bear Family 29-track career retrospective CD, Cat Talk (BCD 16347 AH), but here are the salient details.
Lew Williams was born January 12, 1934 in Chillicothe, Texas, a small town halfway between Dallas/Fort Worth and Amarillo near the Oklahoma border. He was singing on amateur programs regularly as a small child, beginning about age four.
His family moved to Dallas in 1945 when he was 11. Lew attended W. H. Adamson High School, graduating in 1951. He started playing the guitar in 1950 and was getting a few semi-professional jobs as a county singer in the summer following graduation. It was during this time that he began writing songs.
Lew's music was influenced by a variety of musical styles. From a very early age he listened to Gene Autry and country music greats Jimmie Rogers, Ernest Tubb and Jimmy Davis - as well as the big bands during World War II - on radio. Later influences during his teen years include Hank Thompson, Hank Williams, Floyd Tillman and Stuart Hamblin - as well as race music's Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and blues legend "Leadbelly", along with Negro Gospel music.
Lew enrolled at Midwestern University in Wichita Falls, Texas in the fall of 1952 and graduated in 1957, where he majored in Speech. He was very active while in college, holding various offices in groups on campus - including being elected vice-president of his Senior Class. Lew was a full-time college student during most of his recording career.
By the end of 1952, he had a twice-weekly radio program at KTAT, Frederick, Oklahoma, and made appearances playing whenever he could.
Backstage at a show Lew appeared on in Wichita Falls, Texas in late 1954: Dub Dickerson, Lew, Little Jimmy Dickens and an unidentified artist.
When home in Dallas on holidays and on some weekends, he began spending as much time as possible at Jim Beck's Recording Studio, where many of the leading country artists of the day recorded. It was a center for local country musicians looking for contacts and a recording contract.
Although Lew saved what money he could to pay for his own session, he also helped out at the studio anyway he could. He would often be a gofer and get the musicians cokes during their breaks at sessions. As a result, he became friends with a few of them and on occasion, at the end of a session, they would back him on one of his songs, and Jim Beck would record it. His first recordings were probably in late 1952.
Lew's first formal session was at Beck's in June 1953, when he recorded four of his own songs with the studio house band. He cut an up-tempo novelty I've Been Doin' Some Slippin' Too and three ballads - Please Don't Tell a Lie About Me, Just For Tonight and I Cried Over You for the Last Time Last Night. The accompaniment was lead guitar, honky-tonk piano, rhythm guitar, steel guitar and bass. Lew didn't use a fiddle on any of his country recordings.
Jim Beck placed Lew's recordings with Flair Records, of Abilene, Texas and the company released I've Been Doin' Some Slippin' Too and Please Don't Tell a Lie About Me in the spring of 1954.
During 1953 Lew had a band and was billed as "Lew Williams and the Texas Drifters." The group was made up of fellow Midwestern University students and airmen stationed at nearby Sheppard Air Force Base. The band played traditional country songs but also did some ballroom-style numbers as well.
In March of 1954, Lew cut a couple of sides at Beck's Studio, which Jim Beck submitted to Lew Chudd at Imperial Records. One of the songs was Cat Talk, which Chudd liked. He sent Lew a publishing contract for the song and told Lew that Imperial was interested in him as an artist when he had some additional suitable material.
In the spring and summer of 1954 Lew appeared regularly on the WFAA Saturday Night Shindig, a live country music show from the Texas State Fairgrounds in Dallas.
But Lew - and some other Texas country artists - were already experimenting with a new style of music that came to be known as "Cat Music," which combined the feel and beat of race music (as it was called in those days) - with hillbilly. Lew cut his first Cat Music session at Beck's in June 1954, accompanied by lead guitar, honky-tonk piano, saxophone, steel guitar, rhythm guitar, bass and drums - radical instrumentation for that time.
At that session he recorded Cat Talk, Teenagers Talkin' on the Telephone, Cool It Ramon and Little'un. Jim Beck submitted copies of the recordings to Imperial and other record labels. But the mix of instruments and delivery was such a drastic departure from what the country/hillbilly A & R people were familiar with, it was controversial.
So just before heading back to Midwestern for the 1954 fall semester, Lew recorded a couple more demo Cat Music sides - Do It Daddy and Later Baby. For this second Cat Music session, he dropped the steel guitar and sax, but kept the race music feel and beat. But still no takers. Convinced he was on the right track, Lew continued singing primarily Cat Music instead of country.
Periodically, he sent new material to Lew Chudd, hoping something besides Cat Talk would catch Chudd's ear. Finally in July 1955 Imperial signed Lew to both recording and writing contracts.
His first Imperial session was cut at Beck's Studio in Dallas in November of that year using lead guitar, piano, rhythm guitar, bass and drums - with the band doing the background vocals on three of the cuts. The songs were Cat Talk, Gone Ape Man, I'll Play Your Game and Don't Mention My Name. I'll Play Your Game and Don't Mention My Name were released in late winter 1956 and Cat Talk and Gone Ape Man were released in the summer of that year.
His second and final session for Imperial was in Hollywood in September of 1956, where he cut Bop Bop Ba Doo Bop, Something I Said, Centipede and Abracadabra. The session used lead guitar, piano, bass, drums - and on one song, saxophone.
Before graduating college in 1957, Lew met Mae Boren Axton, who was one of the writers of Heartbreak Hotel - which Elvis recorded - and they wrote a song together, Junior High Doll, which was recorded by Johnny Hughes. Lew re-arranged one of Mae's songs, Sea Sand, and cut a demo of it, accompanying himself on guitar, which she used to get Ferlon Huskey to record the tune.
After leaving Imperial, and graduating college, Lew primarily concentrated on writing songs and placing his and other writers' songs with publishers. One of the songs he wrote in the fall of 1957, Your Love, was recorded that year by Porter Wagoner. Some of the songs he placed which were written by other writers include Mumble Jumble and Rumpus, recorded by Floyd Cramer, Sylvia, recorded by Hoyt Johnson and Eighter From Decatur, recorded by Piano Red.
Following graduation from college, as a member of the Texas National Guard, Lew had a required six-month active duty assignment in the U.S Army beginning in November 1957, where he was stationed at Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas.
At the end of his military active duty, in May of 1958, Lew made one final effort to establish himself as a recording artist.
Through Buddy Killen, of Tree Music in Nashville - where Lew had placed numerous songs - he met Mac Wiseman of Dot Records who signed him for a session. The recordings were made in Nashville in September of that year. In November, The Girl I Saw on Bandstand and I Saw You Crying in the Show were released on Dot's Hamilton label. Lew used the name "Vik Wayne" as the artist on the Dot recording.
Lew made his last appearance as a performer in January 1959 and then concentrated on song writing and talent management. A couple of months later, with a partner, Adrene Bailey, he opened Le-Drene Productions, a recording studio and talent agency. They managed and booked artists and produced rock and roll stage shows, primarily for their radio station clients. They also had a touring event, The Battle of the Bands, which utilized local bands in each sponsoring station's broadcast area. And they produced a talent contest for their radio station clients, The Starmaker, which provided a recording contract to the winners in each contest.
Lew in late 1952 at radio station KTAT in Frederick, Oklahoma, where he had a twice-a-week show.
After the partnership dissolved, Lew continued producing musical and other events for radio stations and their sponsors. Lew owned an interest in two more recording studios in Dallas but was out of the music business entirely by the end of 1963.
Being familiar with the growing African-American market, in 1964 he began producing the Miss Tan America talent and beauty pageant, and ran it for several years until desegregation reduced interest in such pageants.
Other business ventures included early forays into professional sports management back when it was far from the hugely lucrative business it is today. In the mid '60s he became involved in the mail order business and over time moved into the publishing field.
Today he is a publisher, marketing consultant and speaker. He married Anita Tomlinson in 1987 and they are happily married and close business partners.
Lew was unaware of the various rereleases of his Imperial cuts during the past several decades. The enduring popularity of his music in England, Germany, Scandinavia, Japan, Australia and elsewhere was completely unknown to him until the Bear Family release in 1998 (That'll Flat Git It! vol 12 Rockabilly from the Vaults of Imperial Records). In 1999, Bear Family and Lew discussed producing a CD of his various works, including previously unpublished demos. The resulting CD and LP were released in the Fall of 1999.
The 29 tracks on the Cat Talk CD (Bear Family BCD 16347 AH) trace Lew's development from a young country singer through early, telling explorations of Cat Music, and his singular rockabilly sides for Imperial, to subsequent demos made when he was concentrating increasingly on song writing and his final stab as a recording artist for Dot's Hamilton subsidiary in 1958.
The LP Teenagers Talkin' on the Phone (Bear Family B1010), has 12 Lew Williams Rockabilly and Cat Music tracks.
An expanded version of the information in the Cat Talk notes can be found in the October and November 1999 issues of Now Dig This. And Issue #8 of Rocket has an interview with him.
Lew appeared at Viva Las Vegas in April 2000 and is scheduled to do a European show in March 2001.
Photographs © Lew Williams
Lew Williams' CD Available from Bear Family
Media Contact Informationwww.lewwilliams.com
©Rockabilly Hall of Fame ®