Hardrock Gunter was born on February 27, 1925. Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, he heard a lot of country and other kinds of music. His own music is a mix of country, blues, and jazz, with a comedic side. He said, “I don’t really know where my style comes from. It’s just the things I like, the way I like to do it. The guitar, bass, drums, piano was what we used to work with. You’d put a horn with it and it’s a dance band, you put a fiddle with it and it’s a hillbilly band.” He added, “I’d rather get laughs than get applause.” This interview was conducted after his performance at the Rockin’ ’50s Fest II in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on April 13, 2005. To visit a website devoted to him, click here.
Hardrock Gunter : The first person that influenced me was a guy that called himself the Texas Drifter, Goebel Reeves. He didn’t stay in any one town very long. He played Birmingham for maybe five or six months and then he’d go to Cincinnati or somewhere in Chattanooga or Atlanta, and he just played the circuit. By doing that he stayed very popular everywhere he went. He didn’t play himself out. He’d get on the radio and do his shows. He really wasn’t what you’d call a hillbilly, he was a balladeer. He did “My Buddy” and songs like that, and he’d always do poetry with it. When I was just a little fellow, six, seven years old, I was listening to him on the radio. My dad took me down to see him at the radio station a couple of times. A good friend of his worked at the same place my dad worked, which was the Birmingham Gas Company.
When I became 13 years of age, my first good guitar, the one I really looked forward to, was a Christmas present and the Texas Drifter helped them buy it from the Gibson Company. I got a guitar called the Kalamazoo which was their second-line guitar. It was made to be a Gibson but it had flaws in the wood or paint or something so they put it out as a Kalamazoo guitar and it sold for $37.50. It wasn’t quite as good as the Gibson : the Gibson model of the guitar I got was $50 retail price. So my dad got me a Kalamazoo guitar.
Craig Morrison : How did you develop as a guitarist ?
HG : I met a guy who’d just gotten out of prison who was a great guitar player. This would be in like 1939 or ’40. He lived at the YMCA and he saw some kind of promise in me ; he took me under his wing. He really played great guitar. He never made records. He didn’t play country or hillbilly, he played jazz. He introduced me to Django Reinhardt, so I started trying to find everything I could about Django Reinhardt. In fact in my home now I have about a 20 by 36 oil painting of Django hanging in that room. So I’d listen to Django Reinhardt and I’d get everything I could with Les Paul. These were the guys I tried to emulate. There’s another guy from Alabama that I always tried to emulate too, Johnny Smith, probably the greatest jazz guitar man in our lifetime. He was influenced by Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul. So we all were listening to the same records. My own style of guitar playing is greatly influenced by those people, kind of jazzy. Actually I’ve had more than one person in the record business tell me that—this is going to sound like I’m boastful, I don’t mean that—say your music was too good. It wasn’t country enough, it wasn’t down to earth enough ; it was above their heads. And for that time period it may have been.
We’d go up to his room at the YMCA. Sometimes we’d have three or four guitar players up there and we’d sit, we’d start playing the blues or some tune and we’d play it for two-three hours, different ones taking choruses. I don’t think the guys do that today anymore. We’d jam. Sometimes I’d go down to the Y and we’d start playing in the afternoon, and I’d leave and come back maybe two-three hours later after I’d gone to school or done something, they’d still be sitting there playing. We really enjoyed it. That’s where we learned.
About that time I was listening to a band in Birmingham ’cause it caught my ear : Hank Penny and the Radio Cowboys. He was from Birmingham, of course. Hank became my idol. Man, I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing because they didn’t play really hillbilly-type music—not that there’s any reason that I wouldn’t like that—but I really liked what they played. Really, they were jazz musicians. In fact Boudleaux Bryant, the great songwriter, played the fiddle for Hank in that band. Boudleaux tells me, of course he’s passed on now, but he’s always said, “I remember Hardrock when he used to come down to the studio and press his nose up against the glass looking in and he had his guitar in a tote-sack.” I don’t remember that, but Boudleaux’s told it to many people, so maybe I did carry it down, but I was just a little bitty fellow. I’ve always been small for my age, except I got heavy of course but I’ve always been shorter than most of the guys in my group.
But Hank Penny became my big idol and he was the real influence on my life. I tried to copy him ; I tried to do everything he did. [Gunter included “Bloodshot Eyes” in his performance the day of the interview.] We became good friends and I knew Hank until he died. I used to go out to his house in California before he died. In fact his wife told me that I was the second person she called to tell that he had passed away. I tried to be like him. I tried to walk like him and talk like him and went to some of his shows and stole all of his jokes, and I was telling them. I didn’t know I shouldn’t do that, but you know how kids will be. Mostly the jokes came out of the old vaudeville days. Hank would take ’em and rewrite ’em for country. Hank Penny was the comedian with the Spade Cooley show in California on early television. He was a comic they called The Good Old Country Boy. He had a Martin guitar that had the chrome-plated keys on it and I wanted to be so much like Hank that I took chewing gum and took the tin foil off the chewing gum and wrapped the keys of my guitar so they’d look like Hank’s.
I became a professional in ’38 or ’39, whichever it was, ’cause I was too young to even pay attention to that. We formed a band in my front room called the Golden River Boys. Happy Wilson was the leader of that group and they became very well known in the entire southeastern part of the United States. I played guitar and comedy. They made records after I left them. It didn’t seem that records were very important to us for some reason. I don’t know why, we just overlooked it. In 1939 I was playing with the Golden River Boys. I did that until I went into the service.
Hank Williams and I met the first year I went into the business. When I met him, I was a teenager and he was too. He was about a year older that I was, so there was that difference in our age. Hank was drinking the first time I met him. I don’t think I ever saw Hank that he didn’t have liquor on his breath. We were friends until he died. It was a hard blow, but I wasn’t surprised. Just a shame, a pitiful end to a great talent. He was working out of WSFA Montgomery, Alabama, about 100 from Birmingham. We were working out of WAPI in Birmingham and so when we played shows our paths would cross sometimes, and a lot of times bands would get together and have two or three bands and call it a Jamboree show. And do it on Sunday—Sunday afternoon and Sunday night—and draw a bigger crowd. So I played some shows like that with Hank two or three times. I actually played in the band with him a number of times, but not as an employee, just everybody worked together, backed each other up. Hank wanted me to become his manager in 1948. I turned that down. But that was my association with Hank.
Every radio station in Birmingham had—five or six stations—had two or three bands on them. A lot of us would go to the same place for breakfast. Radio shows, in Alabama anyway during that time period, were in the morning. They were aiming at the farm market. The farmers get up early in the morning and the theory was that they’d turn the radio on to milk the cows by and do their early morning chores. So all the radio stations had all their country musicians from about 6 to 7 in the morning. Probably be three or four bands, one following the another. Like the Delmore Brothers’ 15 minutes. Sometimes they had 30 minutes but usually it was 15-minute shows.
In 1942 Happy Wilson got drafted first. I was younger than them by about seven years so all the guys got called into service and left me all alone. The radio station let me keep that time slot. It became a solo show when I was just barely 17. I was on, I think, from 6 to 6:15. The Delmore Brothers would be on from 6:15 to 6:30, and I’d stay and play guitar with them. We became friends.
CM : Did you know Lonnie Glosson ?
HG : You bet. I didn’t stay close to Lonnie, I just knew him, and we bumped into each other. We became friends. The music business was a big family at one time. Everybody knew everybody. And they respected each other. No matter what type music you played, you were one of the boys. So when I met Lonnie, I met Wayne Raney at the same time.
We all got back out, and in 1946 we re-established the Golden River Boys. Happy Wilson and I were still together but we got three new musicians to augment the band. They played together all of ’46 and ’47 and then I went to Indiana because of a man that I’d met when I was in the service and he introduced me to insurance. So I resigned from the Golden River Boys, went up to Indiana to sell insurance. I stayed until Thanksgiving—four or five months something like that—I did very well at insurance but when the snows came I went home to Birmingham for Thanksgiving and never went back. I became the manager of the Golden River Boys at that time and I started playing more on my own but doing personal appearances, like an added attraction. When 1949 rolled around, Birmingham got some TV cameras and I became the first local entertainer that they put on television. I had a kiddie show. Then Happy and I had a show that we did at night between the news—5:30 to 6:00—called Happiness Boys. We did country and some of the popular songs of the day.
“Birmingham Bounce” was my first record under my own name. It was on the Bama label. That’s probably the reason I didn’t get much of the action ’cause it was on a small label and they had very little distribution. When you put Red Foley, who was the #1 singer in the country business, why it’s just like turning the faucet off.
“Birmingham Bounce” was a very big song recorded by over 20 bands. It made me. Although my record wasn’t a hit, it created a hit. Red Foley had a #1 record on it. That made me feel good, oh man, I tell you. Every week, somebody would come out with a new version of “Birmingham Bounce.” And I just loved to go to the record store and to the distributor and find the new record and play it and listen to how they were treating it, the arrangement they did on it. That made me get noticed with the professional musicians all over the South, and made me well-known in Nashville. I went to Nashville and I knew quite a few of the guys that were on the Opry already, but when I wrote a song that became #1, you walk with a little different stature at that time.
I think I’m proudest of the fact that I don’t know of anybody that’s ever held a grudge against me for anything. I think that to my fellow musicians I’m an honorable man and I’m very proud of that. As far as the actual music is concerned, naturally I’m proud of writing “Birmingham Bounce.” I honestly believe it was the first rock and roll record. Now rock and roll as a phrase has been around since way back. We don’t know when it started. It was really sexual. It had to do with sex. But in 1950 when I did “Birmingham Bounce,” I talk about rocking to the music. Then the next record I did was “We’re Gonna Rock and Roll, Gonna Dance All Night.” That’s clearly about music. And that was 1950. Now they’re celebrating the 50th anniversary and that was 54 years ago.
CM : They got that wrong.
HG : Yeah. When I did “We’re Gonna Rock and Roll, Gonna Dance All Night” I think that that named the music rock and roll, pinned it down, and I’m proud of that. In my heart I believe I did that.
CM : Well, you knew also the music of Wynonie Harris.
HG : Oh yes.
CM : ’Cause he was talking about “Good Rocking Tonight” but it wasn’t rock and roll.
HG : It was rockin’. You look at any of those songs that came out as far back as the ’20s, when the Boswell Sisters did “My Baby Rocks Me” and those kinds of things, they was talking about sex. I was talking about music.
CM : What was it that made you think that you would use that ?
HG : I have no idea, but I did. After “Birmingham Bounce” I did “We’re Gonna Rock and Roll, Gonna Dance All Night.” And when it came out on the Bama label again, which was just about bankrupt, it got a high rating in Billboard. It said the gang that started “Birmingham Bounce” comes up with another winning combination, smart use of the drums or something like that. Well the record label went bust and I went in the army right on top of that. Right in the middle of that I got recalled to active duty for the Korean War. I went back in the service. It took me out [of the music scene], killed me [as a rising star]. It was January 15, 1951, and it took me out for two more years. I lost two years during World War II and lost two years during the Korean War.
When I came back out of the service I went to WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia and there I was the Master of Ceremonies of the Jamboree and did other odd jobs at the station, became the staff band leader. I don’t know how long it was but it wasn’t too long after that they made me a disk jockey on the very popular morning time : 6 to 9 time in the morning. I did that until I went back into insurance in 1960.
I believed in “Birmingham Bounce” so much I did it again for Sun Records. I didn’t record at Sun studio, I did the masters in Birmingham at a radio station—WBRC station—and sent them to Sam Phillips, leased them to him. I worked at a radio station. Sam Phillips’ brother-in-law worked at that radio station. And he told me about Sam and that Sam had this label and he was recording people like B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Junior Parker. Mostly black artists. Sam would record them and then he would lease the masters to other record companies. Then he also started his own record label but he was doing mostly black artists. When we met each other, he came to visit me. He came out to see me on a dance date that we were working on at the American Legion and he liked what he heard. He said, “You do the session and send me the tape, I’ll put it out.” That was song #201. Elvis was song #209. So that’s another proud claim to fame.
I’d like to be remembered for the way I play guitar and my humor. My outlook on life in general : optimistic. And for whatever contributions I’ve made to the music business. It’s hard to kind of evaluate yourself when you weren’t a big star. I was never a star. I’m just one of thousands of people that made a living playing music for a certain period of time. If I’d have had 10 big hits in a row, well that would have been different. But I haven’t had that. I do like the fact that most people that know me think I tell jokes good and that kind of thing. That I’m more or less cheerful, most of the time.
Sidney "Hardrock" Gunter died March 15, 2013. He was 88. Here is a quote from his website : "He will be remembered as a great musician, keen storyteller, and a good man."
At right - Hardrock Gunter with a member of his backing band, Green Bay, Wisconsin, 2005. Photo by Craig Morrison.
I have also posted several interviews with musicians from the 1950s and 1960s. To go to the index page, click here.