Too Wet To Plow -
Bob Center,
The Unknown Rocker from Tyler

By Shane Hughes

           Located around 90 miles southeast of Dallas, Tyler was the unlikely home of a handful of small-time independent labels that produced some creditable, although thoroughly obscure records during the mid to late fifties. One of the earliest of these labels was the Twirl record company, featuring a late forties release cut at radio station KTAE in Taylor by the ineptly named but popular central Texas dance act Howard Wusterhausen and his Lone Star Ramblers. Following Howard's release, the label faded into obscurity, to be superseded a few years later by such concerns as Trophy (Bill Taylor and the Cyclones and Bobby Garrett), Ty-Tex (Ron Williams, Guy Goodwin, Donnie Carl), Kobb (Gaylon Christie), Flash (Rudy Gaddis, Ferrell Brothers and Thomas Mitchell), Custom (Tony Douglas, Orville Couch, Billie Jean Horton, Rudy Gaddis and Steve Wright) and the reactivated Twirl (Ken Lawrence and Perk Williams). Tyler was also the home of an equally unknown and mostly ignored, yet talented singer/songwriter named Bob Center. Early in his career he was fortunate enough to meet Fabor Robison, the man behind the west coast Abbot/Fabor/Radio concern. Robison recognized potential in Bob's songwriting, pitching the latter's Drinking Tequila first to Odessa, Texas artist Billy Dee, then fellow Lone Star luminary Jim Reeves, who took the song to ninth slot on Billboard's country charts in April 1955. Three years later New York based publisher Central Songs picked up Bob's Flea Brain, placing the song with Gene Vincent and seeing release on Vincent's Capitol EP Gene Vincent Rocks And The Blue Caps Roll, Part 2 in 1958, and also tucked away on one side of the similarly titled LP. With this degree of success, why has Bob remained unknown outside of the central Texas area? The answer may lie in the fact that Bob never recorded for a major label, instead allowing others to record his songs and reap the benefits of his talent. Had he even recorded for one of the semi-flourishing local labels, or any other Texas record company for that matter, he may have received more recognition. Nevertheless, Bob is satisfied with his achievements. Few songwriters can claim that country crooner Jim Reeves scored a major hit with one of their compositions. Bob can and he's glad he was given the opportunity to do so.
           Born in Gilmer, Texas during 1927, Bob Center was raised on a farm southwest of the small town. He began singing at a young age, often joining his sister in harmony, 'We didn't have a radio, but I had an older half sister who used to sit on the front steps around sundown and sing, so I began to sing along with her'. Early on he was impressed by the plaintive blue yodels of the Singing Brakeman, whose records probably inspired him to begin his performing career in the mid-forties with a band made up of students from the New London High School. Bob recalls that his first encounter with professional musicians was in 1952 when he headed to Jim Beck's studio in Dallas to cut a demo session. He recorded four tunes but left without an acetate as 'the recorder broke down, so I came back to Tyler empty-handed'. The only other detail of this session that Bob remembers is that Rex Griffin (the Gasden, Alabama born singer) played bass on the session.
           Soon after his first thwarted studio date, Bob decided to contact Fabor Robison in the hope he could place some of his material with one of Fabor's artists. Robison, from Beebe, Arkansas where he was born in 1911, had formed the Abbott label in Hollywood late in 1951 with a drug store owner named Sid Abbott. Initially, Fabor's label was used primarily as an outlet to reissue Johnny Horton's Cormac catalogue, but he soon acquired such vast talent as Jim Reeves and Mitchell Torok, among others. It was around the time that Torok scored a number one hit on Abbott with Caribbean (Abbott 140) in 1953 that Bob sent some demos to Fabor. Bob recalls, 'I…mailed dubs of some of my songs to Fabor and Mary Robison.
           'They sent me an encouraging letter and tried to get Jack Rhodes to record me. Jack and I tried several deals together thru the years but couldn't get along when we got down to the percentage factor'. Jack Rhodes (born 1907) had his finger in many pies, songwriting and promoting being just two of his talents that earned him a degree of infamy in some circles. Not much of a musician, he was a talented songwriter and is well known for co-inking Woman Love for Jimmy Johnson (Starday 45-561), Rockin' Bones for Ronnie Dawson (Rockin' Records 1) and Green-Eyed Cat for both the Blond Bomber and Johnny Dollar (neither of whom saw a commercial release with the song), among many other tunes. A fruitful partnership could have arisen between Bob and Jack, who was in a transitional period between his original line-up of the Ramblers folding and trying to establish a new band. Both men were good songwriters, but Jack seemed too interested in money than making music at this time.
           Success for Bob was soon to arrive though. The demos he had sent to Fabor that year were recorded at Jim Beck's studio in Dallas and included three original tunes, Drinking Tequila, You're Not The Girl For Me and Give Me One More Kiss. Despite the fact that Fabor had indicated Bob should try and cast his lot with Jack Rhodes, he eventually pitched Bob's compositions to three artists on his Abbott/Fabor roster. The first was Billy Dee's rendition of Drinking Tequila in 1954 (Fabor 104), quickly followed by T. Tommy Cutrer's cover of You're Not The Girl For Me (Abbott 158 and 165). Bob recollects that after the release of Billy Dee's record, Fabor traveled to see Bob and mentioned that 'Billy Dee's record on 'Drinking Tequila' sold more copies in the first two weeks than any Abbott or Fabor record had sold in that time period'. This was certainly an impressive commendation, which would reap an even greater reward for Bob early in 1955 when Galloway, Texas born singer Jim Reeves cut a version of Drinking Tequila for Abbott (Abbott 178) that reached the ninth position on Billboard's country charts in April, where it remained for one week. Just two releases later, Fabor issued another Reeves disc coupling Tahiti with another Bob Center tune, Give Me One More Kiss (Abbott 180). While not the hit that Drinking Tequila had been, Bob was certainly pleased with the exposure that Jim Reeves had afforded him by recording two of his songs.
           With the advent of rock and roll and the rise of Elvis Presley during the mid-fifties, Bob decided to try his hand cutting the Big Beat sound and organised a session in 1956 at a radio station in Gladewater, Texas with Tom Perryman. Perryman's band was, as Bob recounted, inept at recording the new sound, so Bob decided to return to Jim Beck's Dallas studio the following year for a second shot. What resulted was unbridled rockabilly that would remain unissued until released for the first time on a European bootleg split EP with Maylon Humphries titled Rarin' Rockabilly in the late seventies or early eighties. Bob was in good company at the session, backed by the epitome of Dallas' session players, including Leon Rhodes on lead guitar (born 1932 in Dallas, he joined the Big D Jamboree as a staff musician in 1948 and recorded continuously on Texas sessions for artists as Lefty Frizzell and Ray Price before becoming an integral member of Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadours in 1960), Fred Dawson on rhythm, Freddy Scott on bass and drummer Bill Peck (also beating an ash tray, imitating a cow bell, on the session) and piano player Bill Simmons (both of whom had backed Charlie Brown on his second Rose release from '56 and most of Mac Curtis' Dallas and Fort Worth sessions for King during '56 and '57). Produced by Jimmy Rollins, the date spawned the solid Too Wet To Plow, an effusive rockabilly opus concerning a woman who fails to tow the line and an absolute classic of the genre. Leon's riffing was impeccable, while Freddy Scott thumped an unshakeable rhythm. Bill Peck was no less effective, not missing a beat with Simmons knocking out a hopped up honky tonk backing on the piano. Bob has fond memories of his inspiration for writing Too Wet To Plow, 'I was walking past the Trans Texas ticket counter one day in Tyler and a song called 'Too Hot To Handle' was playing on the radio. I laughed and said, I'm gonna write one called 'Too Wet To Plow'. The next tune in the can was Hey Bo, a song Bob had written after a bad experience when a pay cheque bounced. The composition was less primitive than Too Wet but just as energetic, with Bill Peck laying down a propulsive back beat. The remaining two titles from the session included Poor Little Black Sheep and I Beg Your Pardon, Ma'm. What spurred Bob to write and even go as far as recording such quaint material as these last tunes is not known. Retrospectively, Bob's opinion concerning both songs is reserved. These latter recordings were as far removed from Too Wet… and Hey Bo as could be possible and why he chose to release them on his own vanity label, custom pressed by RCA is a greater mystery. His rockabilly efforts contained far more merit, from a lyrical and musical perspective, yet the released cuts were conservative with a distinctive pop appeal. Nevertheless, Poor Little Black Sheep and I Beg Your Pardon, Ma'm were coupled for release on the Bobby imprint (Bobby 5701) in 1957 and seemingly died a rapid death on the local market.

           Bob continued writing material, and in 1958 submitted a demo of Flea Brain (a song that Bob's wife believes was written about her) to New York based publisher Central Songs. In turn, Flea Brain was pitched to Gene Vincent who cut a version for his 1958 Capitol EP Gene Vincent Rocks And The Blue Caps Roll, Part 2 (Capitol EAP 2-970) and a similarly titled counterpart LP (Capitol T970). Although tucked away on long playing platters, rather than a standard seven inch release, Bob had finally cracked the rock and roll market. However, Flea Brain was his last attempt to appeal to fans of the Big Beat. He returned to his country roots the following year when Tony Douglas cut his Geronimo for D as part of a deal brokered by Jack Rhodes. Douglas was born in Van Zandt County, Texas in 1929 and first began performing while touring Germany as an army draftee. Returning to Texas he made his recording debut for the Cow Town Hoedown label in April 1957 (among other artists to appear on the label were Frankie Miller, Dick Hart and one time vocalist for Ernest Winnett's Texas Trailblazers, Ken 'Pee Wee' Short who was the inspiration behind a young Bobby Crown beginning his singing career). Geronimo (D 1075) was the second of seven releases Douglas enjoyed on Pappy Daily's Houston based D label and even though Bob was the sole creative force behind the song, Jack Rhodes, who seemed to be acting in a semi-managerial role for Douglas at the time, insisted that his and Douglas' names appear as co-writers on the record. Bob consented. Douglas went on to record for the local Custom label, then moved on to Vee Jay, Sims, Paula, Cochise, Dot and 20th Century, scoring moderate success with the Vee Jay reissue of his Custom recording His And Hers in '63, and with two of his Dot records in '73.
           Meanwhile, Bob opted for the quiet life, far removed from the music industry. At various times he worked as a truck driver in Arkansas, a laborer in the east Texas oil fields, a railroad telegrapher, aircraft radio man and a petroleum land man. His demos of Too Wet To Plow, Hey Bo and Flea Brain were discovered by insatiable European fans twenty years after the fact allowing Bob to enjoy a moderate renaissance, albeit only briefly. Too Wet… has since appeared on various bootlegs, not least Pure Rockabilly, Vol. 9 on Club, Texas Rockabilly, Vol. 2 on Esoldun, Rarin' Rockabilly on the aptly named Rarin' label and Real Rare Rockabilly, Vol. 8 on Zombocco. Hey Bo also made an appearance on many of these reissues. Even with this limited attention in later years, Too Wet To Plow deserves to be heard again and again. Bob's latent songwriting talent needs recognition. As with many of the obscure but talented acts of the era, he has been overlooked for too long. If you have any of these reissue albums, spin Too Wet To Plow again. You won't regret it!

Back to the RARE ROCKABILLY Main Page

©2004 Rockabilly Hall of Fame ® / Shane Hughes