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An Hour Late And A Dollar Short
Bill Blevins and Ray Strong
By Shane Hughes

           Texas has long been known as a pool of major musical talent, from the '30's jazz infused sounds of Boots and his Buddies and the loose string band hokum of the Dallas String Band to the hopped up western swing of Bob Wills and Milton Brown, the sparse honky tonk of Lefty Frizzell and George Jones, to the more contemporary resonance of the Horton Brothers and Nick Curran. In between, the Lone Star state spawned many of the prime exponents of the Big Beat era, as 'Go Cat Go!' author Craig Morrison surmised,
           "Texas was a breeding ground for rockabilly talent. In general Texas rockabilly has a light, polished sound, a legacy of the well-rehearsed western swing bands. The Dallas-Fort Worth area was a rockabilly stronghold, the base for Johnny Carroll, Mac Curtis, Bob Luman, Sid King, Ronnie Dawson, and Groovey Joe Poovey. Houston had the Starday label and Hal Harris, Link Davis, Rudy Grayzell, Bill Mack, Sonny Fisher, George Jones, and many others."
           True, Texas rockabilly was as unique a musical style as Memphis or California rockabilly (this is also true of other idioms as blues, western swing and honky tonk). However, Houston had much more than Pappy Daily's Starday label. Houston was also the home of innumerable independent labels with far less clout than Starday, but just as much potential. Some of the more notable small-time Houston labels included Dan Mechura's Allstar, Don Robey's Back Beat (Robey's Peacock concern was a major player in R&B and gospel circles in Houston throughout the fifties and sixties), Ted Daffan's appropriately named Daffan label, Henry Hayes and Mel Young's Kangaroo, Bill Leisy's Nucraft, Bennie Hess and Doyle Jones' Jet, Spade and Space group of labels and R. M. Stone's Stoneway. There were many others too, but space restrictions prevent the inclusion of a comprehensive list of these labels. A roll call of Houston born or based singers would also be extensive. Milton Allen, Johnny Bush, Dick Fagan, Johnny Nash, Eddie Noack, Jett Powers (a.k.a. P. J. Proby), Danny Reeves and Carlton Norris number among some of the more pre-eminent artists who were born in Houston or worked throughout that locale during the fifties. Houston honky tonker Bill Blevins should be included on this list as well, simply on the merits of his 1957 waxing of 'Crazy Blues' on National. Unfortunately, obscurity dictates otherwise. This obscurity is very much unwarranted, as Blevins was a fine hillbilly singer, and in this column I'll be shedding a little more light on the late Bill Blevins and another prime East Texas warbler who recently passed away, Ray Strong. Firstly, the all too brief story of Bill Blevins.
           Biographical facts on Bill Blevins are pretty well scant. The meager details that have surfaced indicate that Bill was born in 1932, but exactly where is not known. His influences and inspirations are open to conjecture. Aurally, he draws an uncanny similarity to Jimmy Swan and, from a broader perspective, Hank Williams. This is borne out in Bill's first recordings made for Lillian McMurray's Jackson, Mississippi based Trumpet label in 1953. McMurray, who had already gained a degree of notoriety for producing Elmore James' first commercial sides (as Elmo James on Trumpet, 'Dust My Broom' Trumpet 146) in 1951, had arranged a series of sessions at Bill Holford's ACA studio in Houston during the first week of February 1953. McMurray had recorded a handful of masters by Werly Fairburn (sub-credited as The Delta Balladeer on what would be his debut recordings), Jimmy Swan, R. B. Mitchell (Jimmy Swan's guitarist) and 'Lucky' Joe Almond on February 3. The following day, Bill Blevins was brought into the studio to record four sides, followed by brief sessions by Tex Dean and Glen West. Exactly how Bill came to the attention of McMurray is not known, but he was teamed with an aggregation of studio musicians, most of whom were well known Houston players. Indiana born steel guitarist Herb Remington, who had arrived in Houston three years earlier, led this group of top flight musicians, that included guitarist Bill Buckner, fiddle player Douglas Myers and seasoned bass player 'Buck' Henson, who had earlier worked with Dickie McBride, Deacon 'Rag Mop' Anderson, Richard Prine and Cliff Bruner. Of the four sides cut, McMurray chose to release only two numbers on Trumpet 200. 'An Hour Late And A Dollar Short' is reminiscent of Jimmy Swan's lightly swinging 'Juke Joint Mama' (recorded for Trumpet the previous year) and is an interesting precursor to Billy Barton's 'Day Late And A Dollar Short' (Billy Barton 1007). The flip was an uncharacteristic weeper titled 'Honeymoon Waltz'. Conversely, 'An Hour Late' was a strong tune and far more deserving of the poor local sales the record received. Retrospectively, McMurray and Blevins may have been bequeathed greater sales if 'An Hour Late' had been coupled with 'You Can Have Your Cake And Eat It Too', one of the unissued tunes from the February session. An acetate exists of 'Cake' and the second unissued number from the session, 'Heart For Sale'. During a recent conversation with noted Texas music researcher Andrew Brown, I became aware of the fact that "an acetate survives of the unissued songs. "Cake" is an original and a pretty good one".
           After one release on Trumpet in 1953, Bill was not heard of again until '57 when he surfaced on the one off Houston based National label. According to Andrew Brown, two titles were cut during the early months of '57 in a garage somewhere in Houston. The backing on both tunes is fairly sparse, indicating only lead guitar and bass accompaniment. Brown continued, "Bill was drunk at this session, hence the excessively abused phrase 'drunken southern rockabilly' actually is applicable for once". After listening to the National disc, particularly 'Baby I Won't Keep Waitin'', it's easy to hear in Bill's slurred pronunciation that he had more than just a tipple before kicking off the session. Both tunes, however, are premium examples of lazy Lone Star rockabilly. 'Baby I Won't Keep Waitin'' is as salacious as the title suggests and the second cut from the session, the self-penned 'Crazy Blues', is a slow burning moody piece that draws from the rich musical melting pot of Texas. In 'Crazy Blues', a well cultured listener will detect hints of early country blues, like those hollered by Texas Alexander, Blind Lemon Jefferson or Ramblin' Thomas during the nineteen twenties. Indeed, '30's steel guitar wizard and one time Jimmie Davis sideman, Oscar Woods, could have laid down a version of 'Crazy Blues' that would not have been unlike Bill's. Both titles were mastered at Bill Holford's ACA studio on April 8 and released shortly after on the short lived National label. National may have been a vanity label that Bill established solely for the release of this disc, as no other releases on this label have been traced. Subsequent discs by Bill are unconfirmed, although rumor suggests one further release appeared sometime during the nineteen sixties or seventies. If this disc does exist, discographical data is unknown. Bill is now believed to be deceased, but his National sides are still very much cherished by collectors of the Big Beat, who have been treated to the occasional reissue of 'Crazy Blues' and 'Baby I Won't Keep Waitin''.





           Although Houston may have been the musical hub of the Gulf Coast area of Texas, some of the outlying counties also nurtured a considerable degree of talent. Marshall County was one of these Houston tributaries, and was the home of the KMHT's Marshall Jamboree and A. T. Young's Buddy label, renowned as the small-time company that gave Tommy Blake his first shot at stardom. Marshall was also the home of gifted honky tonk singer Ray Strong. Born in Rusk County, Texas on July 21, 1921, Earnest Ray Strong grew up in Marshall, where he remained his entire life. He became interested in music as a child and eventually became a proficient guitarist. During the mid to late thirties Ray began performing publicly, though his singing career was cut short when he served four years with the Army.
           Ray's influences were many, as his widow Jean intimated ...
"Ray liked all music, but especially country, western, and gospel. He had many close friends in the music world. His oldest favorite band was Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. He liked Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and many others. The locals called Ray 'The Poor Man's Roy Rogers'".

           The unmistakable blues inflected sound of Johnny Cash certainly looms large on Ray's first recorded outing from 1959 on the Marshall based Rocket label. Released via Don Pierce as a Starday custom, Ray's Rocket disc rates alongside other high quality custom releases from the same year by Henry McPeak, Jeff Daniels and Bill Willis. However, the lyrical content of Ray's disc is far superior to any other custom release from '59. The self-penned 'You're Gonna Reap What You Sow' (Rocket 45-754) is pure Sun era Johnny Cash. Maybe Ray had the Man in Black in mind when he wrote this tune and was hoping to pitch it to Cash. Nevertheless, 'You're Gonna Reap' was a strong composition and was perfectly complemented by the sparse backing. Virginia Strong co-wrote the flip, 'Love Shadows'. According to Jean, Ray was a busy songwriter who 'wrote quite a few songs'. The BMI online database listed two other titles written or co-written by Ray, including 'It Took A Long Time' and 'A Losing Game' (with Derek Jenkins). I asked Jean if Ray recorded these tunes and she seems to think that he did. Yet, I have been unable to locate recorded examples of either tune and I would certainly be interested in details of any further releases by Ray.



           Unlike other Texas artists as Johnny Carroll and Sid King, Ray Strong was very much a locally based singer, only performing in the Marshall area. Jean recalls that Ray appeared at the Central East Texas Fair and regularly played at local nursing homes and downtown squares. He even seems to have avoided the Marshall Jamboree and there is no evidence that he performed at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas or any other such attraction. Nevertheless, he remained active in Marshall, performing publicly until May 1999. Two years later on March 13, Ray passed away at the Marshall Regional Medical Center from cerebral anoxia secondary to respiratory failure.
           Despite the fact that Ray Strong's recordings were few and his obscurity was compounded by his localized performances, his Rocket release is highly prized among collectors. Copies of his Rocket disc have sold for sums in excess of US$400, which is at least partial justification for a major talent that remained unrewarded for so long.



           Audiophiles note that a recent Collector label compilation, 'Misty Rockin' Nights' (CLCD 4472), contains an originally unissued, faster take of 'You're Gonna Reap What You Sow'. The released version of 'You're Gonna Reap' is currently available on Buffalo Bop's 'Bop That Never Stopped, vol. 43' (Bb-LP 2056) and 'Rockabilly Party' (BbCD 55064), in addition to the Collector CD 'Rockabilly Hoodlums, vol. 1' (CLCD 4438). As for Bill Blevins, neither of his released Trumpet sides has been reissued. Bill's National label recordings are still available on Collector's 'More Slow Boogie Rockin'' (CLCD 4461).




SOURCES:
  • Trumpet Records / Marc Ryan (New Hampshire: Big Nickel Publications, 1992)
  • Rockin' Country Style / compiled by Terry Gordon -http://rcs.law.emory.edu/rcs/
  • The author also wishes to express sincere gratitude to Jean Strong for her invaluable assistance.



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    ©2004 Rockabilly Hall of Fame ® / Shane Hughes