Lew Williams - The Daddy of Texas Cat Music : Serious Country and Fun Rockabilly

 

Before he was rediscovered, I had heard Lew Williams’ music in the 1980s on an anthology series called Imperial Rockabillies. Each of the three volumes, issued one LP every two years starting in 1977, held two of his songs. In the liner notes, Bill Millar described their style as a “jazzy synthesis of jump blues and hillbilly.” I found the songs endearing and amusing, but didn’t mention them in my rockabilly book.

In 1999, three years after the first publication of my first book, Go Cat Go ! Rockabilly Music and Its Makers, Williams’ rediscovery was news in the rock and roll magazines. As a veteran with records like “Cat Talk” and “Something I Said” long popular in the discos and with revival bands, Williams immediately became a headline attraction at rockabilly festivals internationally. When I got to see him perform live, at the Rockin’ II Fest in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 2005, he was in fine form : animated, confident, and charming. Well-supported by a backing band, the Barnshakers from Finland, I witnessed a solid performer with a terrific repertoire : his own high quality songs that often included word-play humor and now-obsolete but still clever slang expressions. We were not able then to connect for an interview, but began a correspondence. Williams sent me a copy of his Bear Family CD, which contains all of his extant 1950s recordings and some of his own biographical writing. In 2007, again in Green Bay, I saw him perform a segment in a set that also featured Eddie Bond, Hayden Thompson, and Glen Glenn, all backed by Jimmy Sutton’s Four Charms. We did the interview the next day.

Williams’ music clearly shows the shift from country to rock and roll as much as anyone’s, but his blending of the black and white elements is, on one hand, part of short-lived movement called cat music, and, on the other hand, unique. In Rhythm and the Blues : A Life in American Music, the autobiography of Jerry Wexler, who coined the term “rhythm and blues” while writing for Billboard magazine and later became a partner in the Atlantic label, Wexler recounts that one of his friends told him that “something new was happening in the South and Southwest. They were calling it ‘cat music,’ the pre-rock-‘n’ roll handle for rhythm and blues selling to whites. Immediately I glommed on to the name, and we started a ‘Cat’ subsidiary label.” The first release on Cat, in April 1954, was a big rhythm and blues hit : “Sh-Boom” by the Chords [Wexler and Ritz : 85]. Lew Williams’ first recordings in the cat music style were made in Dallas, Texas, in June 1954. He had recorded twice the previous year in a more honky tonk style.

The interview took place on May 18, 2007, in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It has been edited and Lew Williams has proofread it and corrected some spellings and other details.

Lew Williams : I was born January 12th 1934 in a small Texas town named Chillicothe. That’s up in the beginning of the panhandle area of Texas, between the cities of Vernon and Quanah, which are pretty small towns themselves but they’re the largest in that area. The closest big town would be Wichita Falls, which is 65 miles away, and Amarillo is about 180 miles.

Radio was my contact with the music world. I grew up on big band music and hillbilly music. The National Barn Dance in Chicago was a program that we listened to, and the Grand Ole Opry of course. There were many radio stations, and in that part of the country, hillbilly music was programmed very, very strongly. Biggest influences of those early days ? Probably Jimmy Davis, Ernest Tubb, Stuart Hamblen, and Floyd Tillman.

Everyone of my era was influenced by Hank Williams. As I got older, say in junior high, that’s when Hank Williams became prominent. People could relate their whole lives to the lyrics of his songs. In the short years that he lived, the man had so many emotional experiences. And he was able to capture them in his mind so that when he would sing them you didn’t listen to his music with your ears, you listened to it with your heart. Everybody had such empathy when they listened to his music. Stuart Hamblen was very much the same way.

But Hank Thompson was my all-time greatest influence. I remember first hearing "Oh, Sailor." He was from Waco, Texas, and [his band] the Brazos Valley Boys, I don’t know if they were all Texans or not. The main thing I got from Hank Thompson was to pursue my leanings toward song writing while I was in high school. When I was first playing the guitar, in 1950, I read a story about Hank that said he began writing songs when he was in high school and I decided to give it try, too. I wrote several during my senior year. None were very good, but it was a start. I remember the first one was called "I Want to Be With You Tonight." Hank’s music caught me because his songs went far beyond clever lyrics and catchy tunes. He tapped into desires, emotions, and experiences. Those are the elements of his music I always tried to achieve with my own songs, whether serious country or fun rockabilly. I cannot tell you what a great thrill it was in 1952, when I made my first appearance on The Big D Jamboree [in Dallas] and Hank Thompson was the headliner and I got to meet him. Then I played the show here in Green Bay two years ago [2005] and he was on that show.

Craig Morrison : Aside from Hank Thomson, did you get to see any of these people perform ?

LW : No. When I was in high school, although I listened a lot to hillbilly music, other music was catching my ear. I was influenced a lot by jazz music. As I got a little older I was influenced by so much music : hillbilly of course, big band, early blues and then blues in the ’40s and World War II. I was really influenced by Negro gospel music. When I was a little boy, various black people worked in town and they would sing a lot, sing their gospel music while they were working. I just loved it, always have, it’s a part of me too. I remember I went to Lubbock and met Larry Holley and he said that Buddy [Holly] and some of his friends used to go outside the black churches and listen to their music. The music by the black artists was known as race music in those days. Even jukeboxes would have a section called race music. All of the stations did not play race music but there was a record shop in downtown Dallas that carried race records and the kids in school just thought that was wonderful. We’d go there and buy those old 78s. They had music that the traditional record shops would not have. Although I was a hillbilly singer, I found myself really gravitating to that music, probably more even to the blues than to what would be later called rhythm and blues. There was Gatemouth Brown who I thought was just phenomenal. I really liked all of his stuff, and I tried to learn some of his songs. His songs had more than three chords, so sometimes I had a problem. I could barely play guitar in those days. My poor mother, what she went through when I was learning to play guitar ! But I thought Gatemouth was just wonderful. He was an example where you’d listen to his music through your heart. An old artist from years past named Leadbelly was a great influence on me too. I just thought his stuff was fantastic. Most kids my age had never heard of Leadbelly ; they knew who Gatemouth Brown was but they didn’t know who Leadbelly was.

CM : How did you know about him ?

LW : That record shop. There may have been many shops in Dallas that carried race music, but I know that one was always crowded with teenagers, and they weren’t all black teenagers. It was a phenomenal experience to listen to the records. When I started singing this music, very frankly to a lot of country music artists, it was offensive. I don’t know whether it had to do with segregation or not but the thought that a hillbilly artist would be singing race music was so new that they didn’t quite know how to accept it.

I knew then in Dallas there was a recording studio run by a guy named Jim Beck. Jim came out of the broadcast industry. He was an announcer at KRLD. He started recording country artists and was a great influence. He had produced, pretty early in the game, so many sessions that were accepted by the record companies that the A&R men would pay attention when he recommended somebody. He was very instrumental in getting recording contracts for some of the artists on Columbia : Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price. I didn’t have any money and I needed to make some records. So like many other artists I started just dropping by Jim’s studio ’cause you never knew who you’d meet there. In those days [for] really big-time country artists, whether they recorded there or not, if they were coming through the Dallas area, Jim Beck’s was a stop. It was amazing who you might meet over there.

I was going to college at that time in Wichita Falls, at Midwestern University, studying Speech. I was interested in drama and participated in some plays. I was never really that good, they were mostly bit parts, but I sure painted miles of sets. Anyway I’d go to Jim Beck’s studio and try to hang out there. You couldn’t go into the studio of course but you could be in the outside area. I tried to make myself "convenient." When there was a break, I’d go get Cokes or chips for the musicians, kind of a go-fer. I got to know some of the guys. I don’t think anybody else was doing this for them. I guess I would have swept the studio out if Jim asked me to. "Who is this kid, this kid’s always here, what’s he doing here ?"

After I got to know Jim better he would sometimes invite me into the control room and I really thought that was an honor. One of the sessions was with Lefty Frizzell. I didn’t know who the musicians were at that time except Smokey Montgomery, I recognized him playing the banjo. That’s how I made the connection with Jim Beck, and Jim got to be a little softer with me, and the musicians got to be on a little friendly basis. I didn’t get to come in from school every weekend but whenever I did come in I’d always go by Jim’s studio. The musicians would begin to play some of my music, to help me a little bit. I didn’t always know what the chords were that I was singing. If you got more than three chords I was out of the ballpark, and if you got in some keys I was out of the game. Jimmy Rollins was a lead guitar player over there and sometimes he would show me some chords of what I was singing.

Finally in the Summer of 1953—I did one session earlier in 1952 that was so bad you’ll never hear it, and my family will never hear it—but in the summer of ’53 I had saved money and so I did a session there, with Jimmy Rollins [lead guitar] and Joe Knight [rhythm guitar] and Harold Carmichael, a blind musician who played honky tonk piano like no one I’ve ever heard. He was just wild. I don’t recall now who the bass player was. When that session was recorded Jim said "I’ll try to find someone to release it" and later that year a record company in Texas, a regional called Flair, took two of the sides : "I’ve Been Doin’ Some Slippin’ Too," a novelty song, and "Don’t Tell a Lie About Me." The record was released in January of 1954 and was strictly hillbilly. That was my first venture into the recording world. I learned a lot about regional records : most of them had very, very limited distribution. The guys at Flair were very enthusiastic, however. Most of their artists came from the Dallas area, so maybe Jim Beck was the primary contact to supply them with talent.

I continued while I was in college working with race music and I remember some of the students there said that they had never heard anything like what I was playing. What they were used to on the radio was big band or hillbilly, not the kind of music I was doing. When I first started singing this, I didn’t know what to call it. I don’t know where the name came from, but the first person I ever heard call what I was doing "cat music" was Jim Beck. It may be that the term cat music had been used years before ’53. Jim Beck traveled all over the nation and had deals with producers all over so it may be that in another city the term cat music was very prevalent. We had never heard the term rock and roll in Texas to my knowledge at that time, although I understand now that Alan Freed used the word rock and roll as early as ’53 when he was in Cleveland. In those days things were so isolated. If something was popular in Los Angeles you might never hear it in Dallas if it was a regional deal and vice versa. So what we were playing that came out of country music or hillbilly in those days, when we started doing the race music, we called it cat music. I wasn’t the only one.

CM : Who else was doing it around then ?

LW : I don’t know their names but I would see them at the Jim Beck Studio. I think Jim Beck was such a good businessman and so astute to what was happening in music that he recognized there was a decline coming up in country music. Following WWII, we had all the veterans who were used to all this entertainment : USO [the United Service Organizations, which sponsored concerts], the clubs, live music, and then they came home, particularly the ones in the southern small cities, and they didn’t have that. And that’s when we had the proliferation of all the honky tonks beginning to have some kind of live music. Between Dallas and the Red River I can’t tell you how many little honky tonks there were. Dives you could call them. Pretty soon there’d be a three-piece string band in there. Remember that western swing really got popular with the service men. They had entertainment of western swing and they had the big band sounds. All these veterans coming home wanted more of that. This demand—although not necessarily spoken, and may have been something that they didn’t realize they wanted—was one of the things that led to some of the young country artists beginning to pursue race music, getting that bridge between the blues and big band sound, the swing, and hillbilly, and combining them.

Jim Beck encouraged me to come up with a new sound so here’s what I did. And there may have been many others who did. Hillbilly music used primarily string instruments. A western swing band would have brass, drums, and a piano, but most hillbilly bands did not. It was strictly string instruments. I wanted to do a cat music session, so I put together the traditional string instruments of hillbilly music and added drums, a piano, and two saxes. We recorded four songs at Jim Beck’s in June of 1954, and two of those tracks still exist. [Both are relaxed shuffles with lyrics that comment on the use of slang, the first version of “Cat Talk” and “Teenager’s Talkin’ on the Telephone”]. To my knowledge, that was the first cat music session at Beck’s. Jim thought we had a new sound that was pretty interesting. He said "I think we’ll be able to do something with this." He played it for any number of A&R men and they would say "What the hell is that ?" It was so foreign to them, kind of controversial because here you had country music and race music instruments all together, and I was singing [with] the beat and feel of race music. The A&R people that he knew were primarily recording country artists or hillbilly artists. They just weren’t having much of this sound. So he wasn’t able to place the session.

When I was going back to school that year in September ’54, I recorded a second cat music session and Jim tried to prep me. Jim was such a mentor. He taught me. Jim would get the latest race music records. One time he said, "I’ll let you hear something" so he played these race music records. He said "Hear the undertone of what these singers are pursuing, listen for what they’re feeling, not what they’re saying." That’s where I got the feeling. I got to hearing all this and I could see what he was talking about. As I went back in my mind : "Hey that’s what Hank Williams was doing." I don’t recall which records [Beck played], but I know he wanted to convey that cat music needed to be something that people could sense, that they heard with more than just the ear, or the tapping of their toes. More like if you were tapping with your heart what you felt, that you really got into it. That was a great influence on me. As I said, I think Jim was seeing a coming decline in country music, which came to pass.

CM : Hank Williams had just died also ; that didn’t help things.

LW : I think that Jim thought if he could get cat music started, his would be the studio where you recorded cat music. Before I went back to school, he kept telling me, "Now I’ve played the session for these guys and it’s just a little too controversial, maybe it’s too soon for it. But they’re just not used to this, all these instruments mixed." I had no money for the second session. So I took some of my tuition and book money that I had saved and in September, just before going back to college, I spent it on a recording session. But I took out the two saxes and the steel guitar. I left the piano and the drums, rhythm guitar, lead guitar and bass, and did my second cat music session. Jim thought we had a shoo-in and so he said "There are some small labels I can place this with right now I’m sure." When you say “small label” to me, that says “regional label,” and I knew from experience that labels like Flair just didn’t have the funds. Good heart, good people, produced some good stuff, but they didn’t have the clout to get their records played on the radio. So I told him I would pass unless I could not get something better.

CM : On your second recording, you dropped the saxes. Why did you also drop the steel ?

LW : I wanted to get more of a simpler sound. Jim and I had talked about that. When I was a hillbilly, I didn’t use a fiddle. So I wanted to make it as simple as possible. It was either drop the steel or drop the rhythm guitar. I didn’t think we needed the steel. I was thinking, that’s getting too country again. I was looking for this newer sound. I didn’t want to put the horns in to make it so much like race music. I was trying to lose the horns of race music and maybe the steel of country music and come up with something a little different that could not be identified as one specific type of music.

Previous to this, he had sent some songs I did to Lew Chudd, at Imperial Records [in Los Angeles], and one of them was "Cat Talk." It was recorded as an upbeat country song at that time, and Lew Chudd said, "I want that song." When Jim arranged the contact, Chudd said, "I tell you what, I will take a chance on you if you can get some more songs that I like." Lew Chudd was a great businessman and I had a lot of respect for Imperial ’cause this guy had started with nothing and really built a label out of it. So I would send him new songs. I didn’t have any money to go to Jim’s necessarily and make demos so I would make them on a tape at college. Can you imagine ? I look at it today and say what patience that guy had : dorm room demos and Lew Chudd listened to them. He didn’t find anything that he particularly liked so I quit sending them to him, but I had contracted "Cat Talk" with him. He said, "I’ll hold this and we’ll see if we can find something." Well, Jim had submitted the first cat music session to Chudd and he turned it down. Then the last one that we sent him he said, "Well, I’ll take a chance on it, but you’ve got to pay for the session." If I’d wanted to I couldn’t have done it ; I wouldn’t have had the money without borrowing it. So I passed.

It got to be 1955 and I recorded some more songs, more demos : "Cat Talk" again, "Gone Ape Man," a couple of others. Jim was showing them to various A&R people and all of a sudden now Lew Chudd said, "I want to sign him." This was a year after he had heard the first cat music stuff, and now he’s ready to do cat music a year later. We had the first recording session at Jim Beck’s. Lew Chudd set up the session for August but there were so many people he was trying to record at that time that I got bumped ’til November. We finally had the session there and then Lew Chudd put the first record out, which was "Don’t Mention My Name" and "I’ll Play Your Game." That was in February or March of ’56 and then the second one, "Cat Talk" and "Gone Ape Man," was in June of ’56. I have no idea whether Chudd would have continued recording me at Beck’s or not. Jim Beck died accidentally in May of ’56. He inhaled carbon tetrachloride while cleaning his recording equipment and it was not in a ventilated area. He went into a coma and never came out. Terrible. He was 39.

No one was able to take Jim’s equipment and do anything with it. A lot of Jim’s equipment he built himself. He was the only one who knew the combination of all of it. Really too bad. I often wondered what happened to all the old out-takes that Jim must have had over there. Chudd contacted me in July or August ’56 and said "I want to bring you out here [Hollywood] for the next session," and he did.

When Bear Family released That’ll Flat Get It from the vaults of Imperial Records, Bill Millar, a compiler in England, wrote "Lew Williams was the Cab Calloway of rockabilly." That was great. I thought Cab Calloway was wonderful, just fantastic. Most people introduce me as "Mr. Cat Talk" and when I played in England in 2001 for the first time, the MC introduced me as "Lew Williams, the Daddy of Texas Cat Music." Every artist loves to have somebody remember that kind of thing.

CM : It’s not so hard to see why Bill Millar would have made the connection. Calloway was really into humor and your music is very humorous in many places. But he also was very into slang. He even published a dictionary of slang and your "Cat Talk" is about slang. In fact they used to call it hep-cat slang, so there’s even a cat kind of connection back there.

LW : That’s how the teenagers talked : cat talk. So many of the slang phrases I used in “Cat Talk” people today don’t know what they mean. And so Now Dig This [magazine] ran a brief explanation and emphasized what some of the slang meant. But I enjoyed doing the things that the teenagers would relate to.

CM : Who else did cat music at any time ?

LW : Most of the artists in Texas. I would say Sid King, Buddy Knox, almost any person who came from country music and started using a race music influence. In Texas, understand we had not heard the term rock and roll. It was unknown to us. I think that came into our language sometime in ’55, or late ’54. Rhythm and blues we heard first. The term “rockabilly” was not necessarily a complimentary term. “Oh, you’re one of those rockabillies." Some of the country artists who felt that way earlier were doing rockabilly a year later.

CM : So cat music was not rock and roll, as we now understand rock and roll to be ?

LW : It probably merged. It may have been exactly the same music but those of us who were doing this new form of music early, called it cat music. Likely, the teenagers and the producers called it cat music longer than most of the artists. They would say "Cat Music Tuesday night" [in an advertisement]. When we began hearing the term rock and roll we wanted to be rock and roll artists.

CM : Whenever there’s a new style there’s always competing terms until one gains general acceptance. What Bill Haley was doing, would you consider that to be cat music ? The way you’ve described cat music is the hillbilly artists doing music with race music influence.

LW : That would very well fit what Bill Haley was doing.

CM : Most writers agree, myself included, that rockabilly really begins with Elvis Presley’s first recordings and the impact that he had.

LW : He had the greatest impact. There were a lot of people, I think in all parts of the country, doing music that had a race influence. Not just in the Texas area but look over in Louisiana where you had some of the Cajun influence. It’s all leaning towards the same thing, just a different angle. When Elvis arrived there had never been—and will probably never again be, certainly not in our lifetime—an impact by a single artist like Elvis Presley had.

CM : If we go with the way most people think, that rockabilly as rockabilly has an Elvis influence, then what took place before Elvis arrived but still shows the black and white mix, is not exactly rockabilly. ’Cause Elvis, by reducing the number of players upped the intensity : they’re pumping out more sound. It’s not the cooler sound of what I think Jim Beck was playing for you with those records, like you hear in a rhythm and blues record like [Billy Ward and the Dominoes’] "60 Minute Man."

LW : In our area it was a big one.

CM : There might be 10 players on it, but everybody’s playing their tiny little bit and it locks in until you don’t realize how many people are doing that. It just comes at you as this integrated force. It’s only later when you go “wait a second, there’s a sax here and there’s a drummer here” and you start adding up the players and you realize there are 10 people on this session ! That’s one of the characteristics I can use to draw a line between before Elvis and after Elvis. Before Elvis, yourself you have two saxophones at least on your first cat music session ; it’s a fairly large band. You look at Bill Haley’s band and it’s really like the Louis Jordan band. It’s the same instrumentation, in fact it’s the same producer [Milt Gabler] as Jordan’s when Haley went to Decca. The conception is for a larger band. Now they’re taking some of this integration in the instruments from rhythm and blues. What Elvis is doing [at his first band session] is different, because it was a demo session when Sam Phillips said "let’s see what the kid can do" : there wasn’t a whole bunch of guys. So they pump it up more and that turns out to be the formula. Is cat music only something in Texas or could we call cat music this period where the hillbillies are integrating the rhythm and blues music and it hasn’t yet got into this Elvis instrumentation and Elvis feel ?

LW : I think you may have had the term cat music all over. I don’t know where it originated. Jim was the first person I heard use it.

CM : When people try to describe Bill Haley’s style there’s been various names come up. As yet there is no universal name for this. We had Sid and Billy King sitting in these chairs yesterday [for an interview], and they’re part of that period. It might be a good term.

LW : It’s going to be different in different regions of the nation. We were all influenced by the same thing, driving for the same thing. We just kind of arrived at it from different places.

CM : You had dated the period of cat music in two phases. It starts in mid ’53, and you phase it out as early ’56 and that’s I suppose because that’s when rock and roll became big, that’s when Elvis was on TV.

LW : Yes. From my perspective, ’53 was the time when—and Jim Beck would be very prevalent in this—I believe the young country artists who were interested in this began their quest for ’what is this.’ What I often did was go to Jim Beck’s to get my “report card.” I don’t know how many, if any, other artists did. Jim Beck was very generous with his time to a beginning artist if he had time. If he was doing mastering, he wouldn’t talk to you, you couldn’t even get in to see him. But when he had time he would spend some time with you and help you. He began, I believe, in ’53 on this helping artists with their quest. I would go to Jim and we talked about style. In those days developing your individual style was key. It was like an alter-ego to you. So you’d go over and show Jim some licks that you’d learned, the ways you were singing, your phraseology and stuff, waiting for your “report card.” Jim Beck was a real businessman. If Jim Beck’s could become the studio to record cat music and if he could get enough artists placed on labels doing cat music, he’d have a big base. Jim was the one who suggested two saxes on my first session. I was going to have a horn and he said, “Why don’t you use two ?” Incidentally they were black artists.

CM : You used the term emotional sound in your article. Was that your term or his term ?

LW : That was what he wanted to convey. I don’t know that he ever said it. That’s what I was trying to achieve but he was my mentor in showing me how that worked. He may have never used that term but it describes what he meant.

CM : How would that differ from country music ? He would say, “listen to this race music” and someone, yourself perhaps, came up with this term that it has an emotional sound. What’s different about that ?

LW : I’m not sure it is. After I recognized what Jim was talking about, that’s when I went back in my mind and said, well that’s Hank Williams, that’s Stuart Hamblen, that’s Floyd Tillman. That’s what they were doing. Jim Beck was my mentor. I thought a lot of Jim. I regret that I did not know him better.

CM : You had used the term alter-ego for an artist’s style, and another way to call that is persona. Look at Ernest Tubb for example’ I’ve seen him in videos. He sings a song like "I’m Walking the Floor Over You" with a huge smile on his face. This is a song about being in absolute misery ! I can imagine someone like Ted Daffan who wrote "Born To Lose" would sing that with a big smile on his face because the typical persona of the period is that of the entertainer. A shift happens around 1948. You see this with Hank Williams. When you ask people who were there, “What was it about Hank Williams that captivated you so much ?” they usually say, "He sang like he meant it."

LW : He sang your heart. You could empathize just reading his face what he was singing.

CM : In other words, he was projecting what he was singing while he was singing. In doo wop music, what some people think is the first doo wop record is a very slow song by the Orioles called "It’s Too Soon to Know." How is that distinguished from the Mills Brothers or the Ink Spots or even the Ravens ? People say when Sonny Til sang, he sang like he meant it. It’s also 1948 and it seems to me that right around this period there’s a rising of the intent expressed in the singer’s persona. If this is one of the things that shifts—you have this rise in intensity even in music that’s very entertainment-oriented, like the jump blues singers singing about their big fat mamas—why then ? And that’s the same time that black music gets widely heard on the national radio airwaves.

LW : There’s another element. The beginning of 1948 was less than three years following WWII, and we had all these American combat veterans who had came home. They had scars in their minds that many never got rid of. They saw horrible things and had a lot of emotion that they were carrying with them. We had this empathetic expression from primarily country artists that I’m thinking of. I think the emotions the troops brought back home with them, combined with that of the families who had servicemen overseas and were constantly worried during the war, I think they had stored up so much emotion for so long that the music allowed a spigot for some of that emotion to come out. At the same time the influence of swing music, the live entertainment that the guys were used to during the war, the emotional songs from WWII, I think there was kind of a funnel effect and it all just came down to this period.

CM : And that’s the connection between the emotional sound. It seems there’s much more emotion not just in the words but in the presentation. These are probably the two chief catalysts of rock and roll : the mix of the white culture and the black culture which the radio had a lot to do with, and this post-WWII intensity of emotion getting released.

LW : I think some of these songs—I’m not talking about the rhythm and blues artists, I’m thinking about strictly country—I think there were a lot of tears shed from listening to some of those Hank Williams’ songs and some of the other artists’ songs where they’re singing with such empathy. I think it opened up some escape valves in people’s bodies and the tears flowed out and they were able to get rid of some of that hurt that they’d been holding for so long. Some of that fear, some of that anguish when you have troops, or you have sons, overseas. I can remember in my little town during the war when the telegraph operator went to somebody’s house, that wasn’t good news. All of the mothers would rush right over. I remember that from when I was a little boy. My mother : it was just such anguish for her, and the others with sons overseas. They didn’t hear from their sons that frequently, and they’d get these V-mails that had been censored. Families didn’t hear from them on a regular basis because they had no way to send letters. My brother flew on a B-24 bomber out of New Guinea, and that was in the middle of nowhere, out in the jungles. Communication was almost never, for a long time. The things that my mother went through, just like other mothers, were horrible. I think that the release those mothers, and the fathers, must have had, may have been something they didn’t even recognize, but it allowed them to get rid of some of their emotions. This emotional release—I had never thought of it until this conversation—that’s interesting.

CM : That seems to be a good explanation for this rising emotional involvement.

Your family wasn’t supporting your involvement and part of it was that they were thinking you were wasting your time and your money. And you had some friends maybe thinking the same thing. There seems to be a kind of a racial thing going on here where there were a lot of people that were not happy to see that there was a crossing of the cultures going on here.

LW : That is correct.

CM : Cat music was very much a crossing of cultures. So there may have been a kind of a sense of betrayal that this younger generation is not holding to the status quo of racial relations.

LW : I didn’t recognize it then, but some of it was an embarrassment to the families that their sons would be singing race music. Like "What will the neighbors think ?"

CM : What was the general racial thinking where you were raised ?

LW : In Texas—and I realize that Texas wasn’t the most severe of the segregated states—it was just understood that there were dividing lines. I don’t recall any issues between the races when I was growing up or even through high school. In ‘52-’53 I had a band in Wichita Falls, when I was in college, called Lew Williams and the Texas Drifters, a hillbilly band. I did covers of different people’s songs. I liked Webb Pierce a lot. My band members came from Midwestern University or from Sheppard Air Force Base, which was in Wichita Falls. There was this black singer from Sheppard, named, of all things, White. He sounded like Hank Williams. Being so nave, I brought him into my band and took him on some appearances, anywhere from a modified honky tonk to some places that had pretty big dance floors. The band members from Sheppard Air Force Base were real musicians and most of us at college, if we had to play more than three chords we were kind of out of business. But these guys from the air force base were really good. We could play some good dance music, so we got some bookings. And we took White with us. In retrospect, that was crazy. He was to sit in a chair by the bandstand and only come up on stage when it was time for him to sing. One night we were playing a club—I couldn’t see White, I wasn’t watching him, we were singing—and a white woman came up to him and he danced with her. This was 1953 in Wichita Falls, Texas, an oil capital, where they had all these roughnecks and everything. The manager of the club motioned me off the stage and he said, "You get your instruments and get out of here, or someone’s going to get killed." That’s when he told me what happened. He said “that black guy”—actually he didn’t say the black guy, he didn’t use that term—“is dancing with a white woman. They could kill him.” We grabbed our instruments, no cases, no nothin’, but just got to the cars and got out of there. That was pretty serious, and not very bright on my part.

CM : Did you know Darrell Glenn or his dad Artie ?

LW : No. Mr. Glenn played at Jim Beck’s on some of the recording sessions and it was suggested by Kevin Coffey, who wrote the liner notes on [the CD] Cat Talk for Bear Family, that the bass player had to be either Mr. Glenn or one other person from that specific time period.

CM : The dad wrote the song "Crying in the Chapel." I mentioned the Orioles with the first doo wop song. Darrell Glenn did "Crying in the Chapel" and then Sonny Til and the Orioles did it. Then Elvis got it from them. I was on the radio in Montreal on a talk station and they love music but they don’t have the license to play music because it’s a talk radio station, so what they do is they talk about music and they’re allowed to play little snippets of records. There’s a producer there who’s crazy about music and he brought me in for a show to talk about desert island records : if you were to go to a desert island which records would you take, your essential records. So I was brought in and presented as the visiting expert. The callers would call in, “oh I really like this…oh yeah…talk about it,” and they’d play 30 seconds of it and have to stop. When you’re on a radio station and they ask for callers, the call gets to an operator first who asks “what’s your name and where are you calling from ?” and the guy in the studio sees the name and locale on a little screen so he has something to say right away and he doesn’t have to take notes. The two guys in the studio saw the name of the next caller and said “this guy calls all the time and he’s going to try to make your life miserable. He’s a black guy and he’s always ranting about black and white relations, so just watch it.” So I said to the caller, "Oh hi, how are you doing ?" And the first thing he said was "you call yourself an expert !" So I ask "What are your musical favorites ?" He goes into a rant about how rock and roll is nothing but black people whose music was ripped off by white people. He wants me to defend that or build up an argument so he can make his point. And he said, "If you were such an expert you’d know that Elvis ripped off the Orioles when he sang ‘Crying in the Chapel.’” I answered "Oh yeah the Orioles, yeah, Sonny Til he was a great lead singer. They’re from Baltimore.” The guy on the phone is a little taken aback, because I did know my stuff. Then I said, “But actually, yes Elvis got it from them but they didn’t originate the song. The song was written by a white country musician in Texas whose son performed it first." And it just stopped the guy in his tracks. Because it completely altered his line of reasoning. "Elvis got it from a black guy so he ripped him off !" "Yeah but the black guys got it from a white guy !" And all he could say was to repeat his initial disdain, "Well you call yourself an expert !" and he hung up the phone. Actually back in those days, I think the rip-offs came from the strong preying on the weak and race had nothing to do with it.

Lew, you never played guitar on your sessions.

LW : Oh no. Those musicians would not have even let me in the studio with a guitar. I played onstage for the first time in 41 years at Viva Las Vegas [in 2000]. When I was booked at Viva Las Vegas the first time, I wasn’t going to play a guitar while singing. Tom Ingram [the promoter] and some of the others said that I really needed to have a guitar. So I got my old guitar out, my old ’55 Martin, and got calluses on my fingers again for the first time in a long time. I enjoy it now but it was foreign to me then. I did not carry a guitar into the studio. My level of musicianship on the guitar would not measure up in that area. I was a writer and singer. If I rated myself something it would be a good songwriter and I really enjoy singing, but a musician I don’t claim to be.

CM : How would you like to be remembered ?

LW : Someone who had a lot of fun with the music. I have such fun when I’m on stage. I lose track of what’s happening. Last night I enjoyed the show. I’d never played with Jimmy Sutton’s group before. They are so good. Last night I danced some. I don’t always. I did in Las Vegas and I did in Italy, it depends on how I feel. I get to sing some of my songs. Some of the songs I wrote are fun, they were meant to be fun and different. When people write about me many times they use that term. In fact, for one guy who was doing a story, I just compiled some of the snippets of how many people have said “Oh Lew Williams’ songs are sure different. This guy is really different.” I’d like it to be remembered that I created music that I want people to have fun with. And when I get on stage I really have fun with it.

CM : And is that what you’re most proud of ?

LW : I think so. It is amazing to me. My songs, that we’ve been able to find, have been recorded by artists from 11 countries. Last night there were some people here from Japan ; I was amazed how many. They said “several artists from Japan have recorded your songs. You’re really famous there.” Isn’t that amazing ? I wrote "Something I Said" in 1953. I had no idea others would record it. Ray Condo recorded it twice. That’s the one the greatest number of artists have recorded. That something I wrote in ’53 is still recorded by other artists today ! I think I get as much a kick out of hearing other artists doing my songs as doing them myself. The different interpretations are so neat.


comments or questions ? email me

I have also posted several other interviews with veteran and legendary musicians. To go to the index page, click here.

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006