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CHARLIE FEATHERS
by Phil & Shaun



"Let me tell you something - in 1954 when Elvis Presley's first record came out, it was just like when they found gold in California. But then in'55 when Elvis went from Sun Records to RCA - well, after that, Elvis wasn't Elvis no more. Yep, the Elvis we knew died back in'55 - and that was the beginning of the end for music. Now let me tell you where rockabilly comes from. It comes from the cotton patch blues, and from bluegrass. And drums don't really work with rockabilly. They collide with the bass. It isn't really rockabilly if you use drums. That turns it into just rock. Well, drums are OK on rockabilly if it's just a running lick, like Buddy Holly's 'Peggie Sue' - that's rockabilly, when you keep that flow going. That's what Scotty Moore and them gave Elvis. But if it's laid-down, straight backbeat, like Carl Perkins had, that isn't rockabilly. Half the drummers don't know how to drum, to start with. They're timekeepers, that's all they are, with no dynamics. And dynamics, that's part of the show in rockabilly. That is exactly what it's all about, right there."

So reads the sleeve notes to Charlie Feathers' 1991 Elektra album in the American Explorer Series, a critically acclaimed series dealing with various aspects of "roots" music including the blues of Johnny Johnson, the zydeco of Boozoo Chavis and the high lonesome sound of Texan country singer Jimmie Dale Gilmore. The album is the highest profiled project of Charlie's career and he recorded it, fittingly enough, in his adopted hometown and the home of his original recordings, Memphis, Tennessee.

Charlie Arthur Feathers was born on 12th June 1932 near the rural town of Holly Springs, Mississippi between Slayden and Hudsonville, one of eight children for poor tenant farmers Leonard and Lucy. He left school at the grand old age of ten and spent his time hanging around town soaking up the sounds of the local hillbilly and bluegrass bands as well as the blues of Junior Kimbrough who Charlie describes as "the greatest musician in the world, once he gets the blues and sets down and starts playing a git-tar. But he has to be in that frame of mind. I can tell when he feels the blues, cause he changes like daylight to dark. It is just like when the sun is shining and then it goes down in the clouds, that is how he sings the blues." Having left home at about sixteen with his father to find work on the oil pipelines in Texas and Cairo, Illinois, Charlie finally settled in Memphis, getting married to Rosemary in 1950 and working in a local box factory. After several months spent in a Memphis hospital due to spinal meningitis he made the decision to try his hand in the music business. He had played regularly during his time in Texas and as with numerous other southern boys had liked the way that music could provide a salary without the sweat and toil of a regular job.

The biggest studio in Memphis was out on Union Avenue and was run by Sam Phillips who after a couple of years taping weddings and commercials (his business card read'We Record Anything - Anywhere - Anytime'), had started making a name for himself in the rhythm and blues field. He began by recording the likes of local bluesman B B King for West Coast companies like Saul and Jules Biharis' Modern label before commencing his own Sun Records label with an impressive roster of Southern blues singers including Howling Wolf, Ike Turner and Rosco Gordon.

By the time Charlie came onto the scene, Sam had lost most of his coloured artists as they made the pilgrimage to the promised lands of Chicago and Detroit and he was therefore relying more on the white country music of the rural south. Sam arranged for Charlie to work with two veterans of the hillbilly scene Bill Cantrell and Quinton Claunch a duo who had grabbed Sam's belated attention by penning the hit song Daydreamin'. Sam had turned down the demo and watched helplessly, as it became a hit for local rival company Meteor Records via Bud Deckelman and a cover by Jimmy Newman.

After rehearsing with Claunch and Cantrell at a small home studio the first single to be released of Charlie was I've Been Deceived/Peepin' Eyes on Flip 503 in February 1955. The 17 February session that produced Peepin' Eyes also saw Charlie record Crazy Love For You, Baby Pay Me No Mind, I Want To Go Where The Good Girls Go, Pretty Little Flower and Hammer, Hammer, but unfortunately none of these survive. By May, the single had made a brief entry in the Memphis country charts with sales of about 3000 copies. I've Been Deceived is now considered a classic of the era with a pure hillbilly vocal, emotion dripping from every word coupled with lyrics which compare to the best country songs of any era;
"But the Good Book tells us, you'll reap what you sow
And your harvest, darlin', will be bitter tears I know
Oh, I've been deceived."
Peepin' Eyes by contrast, was a more up-tempo honky tonker, catchy enough to have more noise had the good Lord been a willin'.

The future at Sun was looking bright for Charlie and improved further when in'55 he helped session man Stan Kesler, a mainstay in the Memphis music scene, write and demo two songs for the up and coming Elvis Presley on Keslers quarter track tape recorder. I Forgot To Remember To Forget was issued as the B-side of Elvis' last Sun single Mystery Train (SUN 223) on 1 August 1955. The other song, We're Getting Closer To Being Apart, wasn't picked up by Elvis which was a pity because it was an ideal vehicle for him with Scotty's guitar replacing the fiddle break of the demo. During this period it is believed that Charlie recorded numerous sessions at Sun, including one on 24 June 1955, but due to financial difficulties at the time, the tapes were recorded over. In a 1969 interview with Roger Ford of Rock'n' Roll Collector magazine, Charlie claimed to have recorded about fifty songs at Sun but this seems an unlikely number. A November 1st 1955 session that was saved, was his last official one for the company during which he recorded both sides of his next single. The Claunch/Cantrell composition's Defrost Your Heart and Wedding Gown Of White were issued in December 1955 as SUN 231 but the single bombed with only about 900 copies sold. Issued at the same time as Carl Perkins' Blue Suede Shoes it is little surprise that Charlie's hillbilly offering failed to ignite the record buying public's imagination. Had the single been twelve months earlier it could have launched Charlie's career in the country charts as both sides were strong hillbilly items but the public was becoming younger as the teenagers across the country were beginning to listen to race music on black radio stations. The local Memphis kids were tuning in to the sounds of Dewey Phillips' Red Hot And Blue show which was being broadcast on WHBQ. Added to the public's taste was the fact that, although Sam had received $35,000 from RCA for Elvis, money was still tight and he was putting all his energy and cash (excuse the pun!) into the promotion of Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. There was little time or enthusiasm left for the likes of Charlie or Slim Rhodes and with Charlie's contract with Sun finishing in early 1956, th writing was on the wall.

Charlie was now inspired to try his hand at the new rockabilly style and when he returned to the studio in January 1956 he tried to win Sam's affection with a session which produced the version of the rockabilly classic Bottle To The Baby, a brilliant rockin' version of the standard Frankie And Johnny and two hillbilly tunes showing that he could wail with the best, So Ashamed and Honky Tonk Kind. In the spring of April/May 1956 he also tried his hand at Corrine Corrina, again with great results, but Sam appeared to show little interest. In all fairness to Sam Phillips, so many "classic" recordings were being made in his studio on a nearly daily basis that even a major label would have struggled to release them all. With hindsight, Sam's judgement was impeccable. The small cores of artists that he pushed (Cash, Perkins, and Lewis) all made the grade whereas the lesser known artists failed to hit the charts, however good the material. When there was no sign of a further release, Charlie's patience expired and he headed across town to Les Biharis' Meteor label in April 1956. Charlie's band The Musical Warriors by now included Jody Chastain on double bass and guitarist Jerry Huffman. The duo had already showed their rockabilly pedigree by penning the great Boppin' Bonnie for Eddie Bond who Chastain had been working for. In the Meteor studio on 1794 Chelsea Avenue they recorded two new songs, the classic Tongue Tied Jill and Get With It using only one mike and returned to Sam with the tape. Again Sam showed little interest in the recordings and a disillusioned Feather's returned the tapes to Bihari who on asking Charlie what he intended to do was told that he no longer had plans and that Bihari could do what he liked with the songs. Bihari was impressed enough to release the songs as Meteor 5032 on 23 June 1956. The single did good local business and furthered Charlie's fame in the mid-south resulting in an appearance on the Wink Martindale Dance Party on Channel 13 where he sang Tongue Tied Jill and a one-off appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York. According to Chastain "Tongue-Tied Jill was one of the biggest records Meteor ever had; it was on every jukebox in town. I've heard it sold around 100,000 copies, but we never got one penny out of the record. Les Bihari was a crook!" On Friday 5th August 1955 at Overton Park Shell in Memphis he performed on Bob Neal's 8th Anniversary Jamboree together with headliner Webb Pierce, Red Sovine, Sonny James, Wanda Jackson and local sensations Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. An advert from this time also shows Charlie and the band headlining the All-Star Jamboree.

The Meteor record led to an offer for Charlie's services from the successful independent label King Records formed by Syd Nathan in Cincinnati. Charlie signed for King in the summer of 1956 in a deal that virtually signed away any songwriter royalties. It was a bad move financially but it provided the world with some of the greatest rockabilly music ever committed to wax. Charlie has often stated that moving from Sun to King was like changing from a Cadillac to a Ford.

On a hot summers day in the middle of June 1956 Charlie and the boys (including drummer Jimmy Swords) went to the King studio in Cincinnati and recorded four anthems of the rockabilly idiom, One Hand Loose, Can't Hardly Stand It, Bottle To The Baby and Everybody's Lovin' My Baby. Two singles, King 4971 and King 4997 were released from the four tracks and sales were sufficiently encouraging for King to schedule another session, on 6th January 1957, this time in Nashville, Tennessee. Once more the standard was high, if a little more commercial, with the band laying down Too Much Alike, When You Come Around, When You Decide and Nobody's Woman. For the session a vocal group led by Prisonnaire Johnny Bragg was added. Again the four tracks were issued over two singles, King 5022 and King 5043. Despite public appearances all over the south, including a 13th July spot on the legendary Big'D' Jamboree in Dallas and the rather less glamorous weekly gig at a Cairo, Illinois skating rink, the two singles culled from the Nashville session again failed to register a hit. For four such high quality singles to fail to register, the temptation to jack it in must have been a serious consideration for Charlie trying to support a young family, but the music bug was biting hard and forty years later he was still recording, looking for that one elusive hit! A typical show from this time would have Charlie supported by Chastain and Huffman and an occasional third Musical Warrior, drummers' Billy Adams or Ramon Maupin. As well as playing the southern beer joints with Sun artists like Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, gigs also included drive-in movie theatres with local Memphis acts Lloyd McCullough and Bud Deckleman. When The King contract expired, a further term was not offered.

Charlie headed back to Memphis where his next known recordings were made in 1958. He is rumoured to have again tried his luck at Sun with a catchy demo of The Man In Love before recording four tracks sometime in December 1958. Two of the tracks, Jungle Fever and Why Don't weren't released until June 23rd 1960 on Kay 1001 with My My and Jody's Beat following on Kay 1002. Recorded at the same session were two instrumentals My Way and Jody's Beat that featured Charlie on guitar but issued as Jody Chastain on Kay 1002. During this time, in late 1959, Charlie recorded at the Royal Studio in town for Hi records. The session was produced by Walter Maynard who released Dinky John and South Of Chicago as Walmay 101 on 10th July 1960. Partly due to the folksy nature of the songs (they heavily feature the banjo) they were released under the name Charlie Morgan. Another venture from this time was the release of Memphis 103, two songs Wild Wild Party and Today And Tomorrow that were recorded in early 1961. The session, which also produced Love Don' t Treat Me Right, Love Don't Treat Me Right and the still unissued Crazy, took place at Stan Kesler's studio in Memphis and featured Kesler, Alvin Smith, Bobby Wood and Danny Taylor. With his career at a stand still, he worked local gigs only and supported his family with numerous day jobs including driving an ambulance. Nobody's Darlin' and Deep Elm Blues from two 1963 sessions at Phillips International Studio in Memphis (Deep Elm Blues) and Sheffield, Alabama (Nobody's Darlin') were released on Holiday Inn 114 on April 10th 1963 but the change in labels didn't change the luck.

The sixties was a tough time for country and rockabilly singers as the US was being taken by storm by the Beat groups from Britain as well as the sounds of the Monkies and Jimi Hendrix. Some tried to change with the times, normally with disastrous results; others just crawled under the woodwork until the rockabilly revival of the seventies. To his credit, Charlie never strayed from his hillbilly/rockabilly style and this was evident in the tracks he recorded between 1967 and 1969 at Tom Phillip's Select-O-Hits Studio in Memphis. These songs were eventually issued in 1979 on the Barrelhouse album "That Rockabilly Cat". One of the greatest, most authentic releases from the period came via the single Stutterin' Cindy and Tear It Up issued on Philwood P-223. 1973 saw Charlie record three songs at WMC Studios in Memphis, Tongue Tied Jill, Folsom Prison Blues and Gone, Gone, Gone. Also that year came the single That Certain Female and She Set Me Free on Ronnie Weiser's Rollin' Rock label (Rollin' Rock 45-025). On 28th December 1973, a very lacklustre live album was recorded at The Silver Dollar Bar in Memphis. The album included four tracks sung by Charlie's brother Lawrence and was again issued by Barrelhouse. Around this time, Charlie's live show was a real family affair with his group consisting of son, daughter, son-in-law and his brother Lawrence opening.

Charlie made his debut UK appearance in April 1977 as part of "The Sun Sound Show" at the Rainbow Theatre in London together with Jack Scott, Buddy Knox and Warren Smith. An album from the show was issued on EMI Harvest but Charlie's performance on the night was disappointing. On May 10th, a couple of weeks after the Rainbow show, he recorded an album with his son, guitarist Bubba Feathers and Dave Travis' band. The album was a triumph with top notch performances of both country (Knoxville Girl) and rockabilly (Blue Moon Of Kentucky).

In February and March 1979 he recorded at the Vetco Studio in Cincinnati, releasing two albums on his own Feathers label. In the autumn, Charlie performed in Houston, Texas for NBC -TV and his performance from the show, supported by Bubba and bass player Pee Wee Pruitte were released in the states on a limited edition 10" album. A December session yielded two singles on the Feathers label by which time the only means of distribution was selling them at his shows. A total of thirteen singles were released on the label.

Charlie and Bubba returned to the UK in 1980, appearing at Caister and again at Trinity Hall in Bristol on 10th November 1984. Both these shows were vast improvements on his 1977 gig, with the British crowd being treated to the old Sun, Meteor and King favourites. Two more triumphant appearances on these shores were on September 9th 1990 at The Hibernian Club in Fulham and his swan-song performance at the Hemsby Festival in 1992. Again the team of Charlie and Bubba was augmented by a couple of young British musicians.

Ill health set in and in 1987 Charlie was diagnosed as having diabetic neuropathy. To help Charlie, fan Billy Poore organised a show in Baltimore, Maryland in August 1989. The show included Sun compatriots Vernon Taylor and Narvel Felts together with revivalist Robert Gordon and raised about $5,000. A similar concert was arranged in Memphis with the performers including Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Barbara Pittman and The Sun Rhythm Section.

Just over a month after recording the Elektra album, in the fall of 1990, he had an operation to remove one of his lungs. Whilst in the hospital, Charlie 's spirits were lifted when he met Bill Cantrell who he hadn't seen in over twenty years. Cantrell visited his room in a wheelchair having fallen out of his bed and broken his neck trying to turn off his alarm clock. Twice during the operation his heart stopped beating and it was feared he wouldn't make it through the night. Charlie felt that he survived because God was leaving him around because there was still something left to be done.

He didn't enter the studio again until October 1991 when over a two-day period at Burns Station Sound Studio in Burns, Tennessee he recorded another critically acclaimed album which was released in Europe on the Sunjay CD "I Ain't Done Yet!" Billy Poore produced the album with backing provided by Bubba, Terry Bailey, Ralph Armstrong and various drummers.

Charlie's ill health continued throughout the nineties including triple-bypass surgery in 1995.

When you look back over the career of Charlie Feathers, it is easy to see that like many other poorly educated southern rockers, he suffered from bad, or rather "no" management, bad choices (leaving Sun so quickly) and an inability or stubbornness to change their style of music and become more commercial. As a rockabilly artist, he had few equals, but the music was a short lived phenominum. Sam Phillips always maintained that Charlie would have made a great country singer and his recordings throughout his career show this to be the case. If he had reverted back to country he could have found fame and fortune as both a writer and singer but personally I don't think the rhinestone suits and glitz of a CMA Awards night would be in his make-up. I think he's better suited to playing in the smoke filled bar of Bad Bob's in Memphis with Bubba, finishing his set and sitting at a table chatting to all and sundry before heading home in the beat-up Ford Dodge.

In late April 1992, my wife and I were in Memphis on holiday. We had finished the tour of Sun Studios and I was up in the record/gift shop above the studio when I heard a young rockabilly guy called Michael tell the shopkeeper that he was on his way to visit Charlie at his home. Seeing an opportunity not to be missed I asked him if we could go with him. Michael gave us a lift to Charlie's in the bed of his pick-up truck, as there was a guitar on the passengers' seat. He said that he travels the three hour journey from his home in Huntsville, Alabama to Memphis every two or three weeks just to visit the Sun Studio and hope to meet some of the old stars. Charlie's place was about twenty minutes from downtown and was a modest bungalow in a quiet area. Although we weren't expected Charlie and his wife were more than happy to let us spend the afternoon there. It was obvious that Charlie was under the weather and he spent the whole time sat on the sofa under a blanket holding one of his grandchildren who they were baby-sitting. At one stage Bubba called in to see if Charlie wanted to go to the funeral home where the body of Marcus Van Story lay. Although Charlie wasn't up to attending he said he would be going to the funeral. Charlie talked about the early days with great affection and also enthused over the band that Bubba plays in every Saturday at the American Club in Memphis. Before we left, he posed with us and his granddaughter for the cine-camera and signed everything I could put in front of him. When we left he told us to call in next time we were in the area - that never materialised but it was a lovely gesture.



On Tuesday 25th August Charlie suffered a massive stroke and was admitted to Saint Francis Hospital in Memphis where after falling into a coma he passed away on Saturday 29th at the age of 66. Following a wake at Holly Springs Funeral Home he was laid to rest at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis.

There have been various radio tributes paid to Charlie on BBC 2, CMR and BBC Midlands together with an unnecessarily cynical obituary in the Telegraph from Spencer Leigh (had Charlie been born a scouser things may have been different!). Probably the greatest tribute came with the release to rave reviews of the double CD on Revenant a couple of months before Charlie Feathers left us for that Rockabilly Rave above. Man, that bill's getting better all the time.

Shaun Mather.
October 1998.




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