Carl Mann : Tennessee Rockabilly


Carl Mann was one of the last and one of the youngest of the rockabilly artists to come out of the Sun label of Memphis. His rocking version of “Mona Lisa,” popularized by Nat King Cole in 1950, hit the top 30 in 1959, around the time of his 17th birthday. Rocking up older songs became one of his specialties—partly at the insistence of Sam Phillips—and his other big hit was “Pretend,” a version of another Cole song. I interviewed him in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 2007, where he performed at the Rockin’ Fest III.

Carl Mann : I was born in Huntington, Tennessee, August 28th, 1942. Lived there pretty much all my life, with the exception of two years in the service and then I lived in Nashville for a few months. But that’s my home, Huntington. I live now about 45 minutes from there.

Craig Morrison : I always thought you were from Jackson. Where is Jackson in relationship to Huntington ?

Mann : Jackson is close by, west of Huntington about 30 miles. I stayed in Jackson for a while when I first started. I did a record on the Jaxon label when I was 14 years old in 1957.

I started singing in church when I was about nine years old. I started listening to a lot of country music at about 10. I listened to the radio, Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night. A lot of people did that back in those days. That was the only entertainment available to kids back then. I really enjoyed listening to the Grand Ole Opry but when I first really became interested in it was when I had some kind of measles or mumps or something one winter. My mom moved me into the living room, in a cot in the living room by the radio. It was warmer in there. We used wood heat back then. I stayed in there two or three weeks in bed. I was listening to the radio all the time : WCKY in Cincinnati and WSM [in Nashville]. They played a lot of country music. There wasn’t too many local stations close by at that time. Anyway I got interested in it and my mom showed me three chords on the guitar. She played a little bit. She played just gospel stuff and maybe a little Carter Family stuff. She showed me C, F, G.

Right after that there was an amateur hour on WDXI radio in Jackson, Tennessee, every Saturday morning, kind of like a little Opry. They had professional bands playing. They played like 30-minute gigs and then they would let the kids, from like 9 to 16, sing for about an hour and the band would back them up. I started going down there on Saturday morning and doing that at 10 years old. I was singing country stuff like Webb Pierce. I remember I did a Skeets McDonald song down there.

Morrison : Was that “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” ?

Mann : Yeah, I believe it was. I was singing it and it goes up to a really high part and when the deejay introduced me he said “here’s a guy that looks like Tex Ritter, acts like Tex Ritter and if he leaves a window overnight and catch a cold he might sound like Tex Ritter.” I had a real high voice then, before my voice changed. I started out there.

The first radio I did was WDXI and then I started to forming a little group with my cousin who lived just up the road and another friend who lived just up the road. We started playing schools, and some new radio stations opened up in the area and we got a Saturday morning radio program, 30 minutes. The first one we did was on a station over in Lexington, Tennessee, WDXL, and we had sponsors that we had to go out and get. We rehearsed it down, got it down to exactly 25 minutes. Over that we was kind of lost. Once, about 15 minutes into the show, they took a commercial break and the manager of the station came in and said “hey I’ve got a western star artist out here, a movie star. I’d like to interview him on you guy’s program and he’s playing at a theatre down here in town.” He said, “if you guys don’t mind me interviewing him, I’ll give you an extra 15 minutes.” We didn’t know what to do. After the 25 minutes we were struggling, but we made it through.

Morrison : Do you remember who the star was ?

Mann : It was Tim Holt, the western movie star, a cowboy.

Morrison : Did you go and see his movie ?

Mann : Yeah, I seen him later. I’d seen him before that, old movies. They wasn’t old at that time.

Morrison : What kind of songs were you doing on your radio show ?

Mann : I was doing pretty much Grand Ole Opry star songs : Hank Snow, Carl Smith. Lefty Frizzell was my idol, my favorite singer back in those days. When I first started, actually when I was doing those in church, there were some guys that knew that I started singing some Lefty stuff and my brother would drive my dad’s truck—my dad was in the timber business, logging—and he would drive that flat-bed truck up to church which was just a mile up there, and them guys would get me up on the back of that truck after church, across the street, like a little stage, and I’d get up there and sing Lefty Frizzell songs. I’d sing “Always Late with Your Kisses” and “Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” and some others. “If You’ve Got the Money Honey I’ve Got the Time,” that was a good one. About a year ago I decided to do some of Lefty’s stuff, and I did about five or six songs on CD [Legendary Country Influences] and I did one Hank Snow song, an Ernest Tubb song, a couple of Don Gibson’s, a Brook Benton song, and a couple of the old Jimmy Rogers songs : “California Blues” and kind of bluesed it up a little with some hard drum licks. It turned out pretty well. I did it down near Tupelo, Mississippi, in a little town called Rienzi.

When we first started, before we got the radio show, the three of us was all playing guitars. I said, “somebody’s going to have to play something else besides guitar.” So my cousin, he bought a fiddle ; he talked somebody into helping him get it. Then I ordered a steel guitar from Sear’s, a Silvertone flat lap steel, and I started playing that. That’s what I was playing on the first radio show.

Morrison : I play a little lap steel myself. Do you remember what tuning you were playing it in ?

Mann : I used a E tuning, a straight E chord. I really didn’t know a lot about the tuning. I don’t remember but it seems like at times I would tune one of the strings up or down for doing some tunes. I learned to play “Steel Guitar Rag” and a few other tunes and then I would play some backup like Hank Williams’ runs and Carl Smith’s runs. I learned enough to kind of backup, do a little fill in. The other guy got an electric guitar and so we had fiddle, steel, electric guitar. I don’t think we had a bass at that time, but we had another guy that played acoustic as well. We finally had a little mixture there. This would be about 1953.

Then my cousin and I went up to Nashville. At that time they had a junior Grand Ole Opry that was aired on Saturday mornings about 10 o’clock and it was just like the Opry only it was kids singing. They had the Grand Ole Opry band backing us up, everybody. I went up there and I did one song and my cousin did one song. I did a Webb Pierce tune called “Even Tho’” [sings : “even though you took the sunshine out of my heaven”. This event from 1954 was recorded on an acetate and can be heard, scratches and all, on a CD called Carl Mann : Gonna Rock ‘n’ Roll Tonight on Stompertime STCD 5. The song is preceded by a chat with the announcer, in which Mann states his age : 11 years old.]. From there we got another radio show, and finally we was doing three radio shows on Saturday. We’d do two live and tape one on Wednesday or Thursday night. We did that for a while.

We started out as the West Tennessee Ramblers and later, right before we went to the Jaxon label, we changed our name because I was getting into more rock and roll. Elvis was one of the first rockabillies and rock and roll and I started doing a lot of Elvis songs so we changed our named to the Kool Kats. We was on a radio station in Milan, Tennessee : WKBJ. A disc jockey named Bill Haney, not the Bill Haney that came out on a record that sounded like Elvis, knew Jimmy Martin and that he had a record label so he called Jimmy and set up an audition.

Morrison : Was that Jimmy Martin the bluegrass-country guy ?

Mann : No, this was another guy. It was Jimmy Martin’s label, the Jaxon label. In most of the bios on me it says Jim Stewart. That was a Jackson-based Memphis label, Jim Stewart, that later on started Stax but that was inaccurate. We went down one Sunday afternoon and auditioned. Jimmy Martin lived in an old house and had one big room off one end of it. He had made it into a studio. It was a pretty good size. I did the audition. I sang a song called “Young Love,” a Sonny James. That was a good song.

Morrison : And it takes a good singer to sing it.

Mann : Well I don’t know how good I was at the time. Evidently, they thought I did alright. I met Carl Perkins for the first time in Jimmy Martin’s studio that Sunday that I went down to audition. ’Cause him and Jimmy grew up together and were friends. This big blue Lincoln pulled up outside and three guys get out, it’s Carl and a couple of his cousins. He came in and shook hands. Jimmy played him a little bit of it : “Hey cat, that sounds pretty good.”

I met Eddie Bush there, the guitar picker I worked with later. He had just came to Jackson about a month or so before and him and a guy named Ramsey Kearney was in the army together in the service in Hawaii and they had a little group together over there. When he got out he came to Jackson to see Ramsey, and Ramsey just lived down the street from Jimmy Martin. Jimmy had a band and so Eddie and Ramsey got back together with Jimmy Martin. They had been playing a while. Ramsey had already split off by the time I got down there so Eddie told Jimmy, “We need to get Carl Mann to play with us.” He came to me I think after we had recorded “Gonna Rock and Roll Tonight” and “Rockin’ Love.”

Morrison : Had you ever seen Elvis perform live at this point ?

Mann : Yes I had. At Memphis at the Overton Park. I went there when I was 13. [Probably it was the August 5, 1955, show, the second and last time Presley played that venue, just before Mann’s 13th birthday.] It was just him and Scotty and Bill. I know there was quite a few people there. By then Elvis had got a lot of attention in Memphis in the South before getting nationally. I don’t know if it was because I was wrapped up in Elvis already, doing Elvis stuff by then, but he was the only artist that I remember from that show. He did “That’s All Right Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” I think he did “You’re Right, I’m Left, She’s Gone.”

Morrison : It must have made a big impact.

Mann : Oh yeah it did. It changed my style of what I was doing. I was doing the Elvis sound.

Morrison : Do you remember how you felt when you saw that ?

Mann : Oh I was really excited. One of the guys that was in the band with me had moved to Memphis, well he was living down there during the week but he’d come home on weekends ’cause when he got out of high school he started work at Hart’s Bakery down in Memphis. His cousin went to school with Elvis. So he’d come back on weekends, telling me all about this guy in Memphis. Then I heard him when [disc jockey] Dewey [Phillips] played him down there. But he was coming in and telling me a lot of things about this guy, long sideburns.

He told me, “they call him Hairless Joe around Memphis because he had long sideburns.” [Hairless Joe was a long-haired cave-dwelling cartoon character in Al Capp’s comic strip Li’l Abner, about a clan of backwoods hillbillies. Hairless Joe and his pal Lonesome Polecat made a kind of moonshine called Kickapoo Joy Juice.] At that time you just didn’t see many people with long sideburns. He’d already gone into a service station—somebody was making fun of him—and he got into a little squabble with them, had a few licks and he whipped the guy I believe. I was really excited, because when I heard him I knew I just felt something. It was unlike anything you’d ever heard before. It was so raw sounding, just a great feel to it. I just started changing my style to doing a lot of Elvis stuff.

Morrison : He brought in an influence of rhythm and blues and blues. Had you heard much of that kind of music yourself ?

Mann : Yes I had. I had heard quite a bit of blues on a station in Nashville, WLAC. There were stations in Memphis.

Morrison : Was any of that music available for you to hear live ?

Mann : I didn’t hear much of it live. But my brother was 10 years older than I was and at the time he could play a little guitar. He was old enough to go to some of the clubs. By then he was going to El Rancho Club in Jackson to see Carl Perkins, and he would come home and tell me about Carl. This was a little bit later, about him doing a song on Flip, his first song.

When Eddie Bush wanted Jim to get us together, he approached me and I said “I don’t know, I hate to split with these guys.” I thought, well, if I could bring my guitar player, the guy who was in Memphis, he was older than I was, but we were real close. His name was Bob Oatsvall and in most of the bios that you read it’s Oatswell, they get it wrong. His name was Carl too, Robert Carl, so we started calling him Bob, ’cause both our names’ Carl. After a lot of thought, I knew I’d have to hurt somebody’s feelings but I made the decision to go ahead and do it. They would let some people go with their group, called the Jimmy Martin Combo, and I would leave with Bob and go with them. So we did that and formed a new group and we went under the name Jimmy Martin Combo, with Carl Mann and Eddie Bush. Both Eddie and I had records on the Jaxon label so we formed a new group and I played with Jimmy and Eddie. Eddie finally left and went to the Louisiana Hayride. I kept playing with Jimmy and Bob and I started playing my own leads some when Eddie left because we didn’t have a lead player.

Before that or right after that, Jimmy said, “We need a piano player.” Bob had switched over to bass, he had taught Bob enough bass. He played upright to start. Bob started playing bass, Jimmy was on drums, Eddie was the lead picker, and he said, “you need to learn the piano.” He knew enough piano to show me a few things about it and what I did was take a magic marker and write the notes on the back part of the ivory, at the back, right on the key. We’d be playing some clubs and we’d get carried away a little bit and doin’ some rockers and about the middle of the night my fingers would erase off the magic marker and then I’d have to kind of guess at it.

Morrison : Was that a piano that you were carrying around with you ?

Mann : No. Most places we’d play back then had pianos. I was too young to go and play in clubs but I did.

Morrison : You’d put this on every piano in every club that you were in ?

Mann : Yeah. I finally started putting a little white tape on it and putting the notes on the tape.

Jimmy Martin had a construction company. I helped him one summer down there, pouring concrete, myself and Eddie Bush. All that summer we was out there pouring that concrete, Eddie Bush would say, “Carl, we got to break away from Jimmy because he just wants us to lay concrete and play music three nights a week at the clubs.” So we needed to tip on up to Nashville to see if we could get something going.

About 1958 we split off from Jimmy. Eddie had went to the Louisiana Hayride and he had met a guy named Carl Belew and worked with him down there. He played staff musician on the Hayride for a little while. He came back and we got back together and got a guy named Tony Moore to play drums. Tony was playing with me for probably six or eight months and I met W.S. Holland who was playing with Carl Perkins.

Eddie Bush and I had been to Memphis a couple of times, to Sun Records. We’d slip in the studio when Jimmy was gone and make a little demo tape. I had the record on a 45 “Gonna Rock and Roll Tonight” [1957]. We went down there a couple of times and the first time we went they said, well, just leave the tape and we’ll listen to it. Well we never heard nothing else. The second time we went back—Jack Clements was the engineer there—and we talked Jack into listening to it. He said, “sounds pretty good but I think you need a little more work on it. Go back and work on it some more, two or three months, and come back.” Between this time I met [Carl Perkins’ drummer] W.S. Holland. W.S. came out to a club I was playing at, the first time he saw me. He was interested in me after he saw me. He came up, introduced himself, told me he liked my singing and everything. He said, “I’d like to talk to you sometime,” so we made an appointment with each other and met. He said, “I think I might be able to help you get on Sun Records. I’ve been down there with Carl [Perkins] and I know Sam.” I said, “Man, that would be great.” He said, “Would you be interested in a manager ? If I could get you on Sun Records it would get something going.” I said yeah, ’cause I didn’t have anybody managing me. So that’s what happened when he set us up an audition.

Eddie and I had worked up “Mona Lisa” and when W.S. came in off the road with Carl we’d get with W.S. and rehearsed it with him a few times. Of course the bass player Bob was with us, we had rehearsed it with Bob, so we went down there and took three takes on it and cut it. We was going to do the back side and Jack said, “Well I’ll tell you what, me and…”—the other guy, I forget what his name was—“we’re going into the cafĂ© and get a cup of coffee.” And said, “I’ll turn this machine on.” He told W.S., “Come here and I’ll show you how to turn it off.” We did “Foolish One,” on the back side, while he wasn’t there. There was nobody behind in the control room, just the tape was running. We did it a couple of times and that was it. W.S. went and cut the machine off. Jack came back in, played it. We had “Mona Lisa” down ; he had already played that back. He played “Foolish One” and said, “That sounds good enough. I’ll play it for Sam.” During this time that we was recording, Conway Twitty walked in. He had already done “It’s Only Make Believe.” He went back and saw Jack, and stayed behind in the control room with Jack for a while. He came over and introduced himself and shook hands and said. “I think you’ve got a hit record.” I said, “Man, thank-you.”

Morrison : That must have felt really great coming from him.

Mann. Yeah.

Morrison : How did you come up with that beautiful arrangement of “Mona Lisa” ? First of all, how did you know that song ?

Mann : Of course I’d heard “Mona Lisa” by Nat King Cole. I’d listened to a lot of the pop stations. Eddie Bush had heard it in Hawaii and sometimes Eddie would just be goofin’ around and he’d get up on up on a chair or something and spread his arms out like he was a big star on TV and sing “Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa.” I forget just how it happened but one day one of us just started off on it fast, well I said “well Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa.” He said, “That might be a good one to pep up, do rock and roll,” so we started working on it and we had it [rehearsed] kind of in rough and we went and played at this club one night. What we would do then was start off on it and do about a part of the first verse slow and then we’d kick it into high gear.

We was playing this club up near Kentucky, which was actually in Tennessee. There was a college over there and the kids would come across the state line to this club. We were starting off on it slow. We did the whole song slow. And they said they want something fast you know, so we kicked it up. I just stopped and we started off on it fast. The time before that we were just joking around. They started coming up to the bandstand wanting us to do it again. So we had to do it about six or eight times that night. I told Eddie, “This is a good indication, this might be the song we’re looking for to get started.”

Before that we was trying to write some stuff. Eddie was a good writer and I had wrote a few thing but there wasn’t too many that was really striking me that was different. We were both looking for something different. At that time you pretty much had to have something different. You needed to have a style. We both wanted to have our own style. We didn’t want to sound like nobody else, so that’s how it started. After “Mona Lisa” the style was established, so we tried it again with “Pretend,” another Nat King Cole song. It worked again, not as well but it worked. Sam approached me after that to do—I don’t remember if “South of the Border” came out first or “Some Enchanted Evening”—but Sam approached me with this South Pacific album of classical music.

Morrison : That was a huge seller. [South Pacific is one of the great stage musicals. First a Broadway play in 1949, adapted from stories from James A. Michener’s 1948 book Tales of the South Pacific, the film version came out in 1958. Both the Original Cast LP from 1949 and the movie soundtrack from 1958 hit #1 on the album charts. The latter was on the charts for more than five years, and was the top selling album of the period 1955 to 1959, according to Joel Whitburn’s company Record Research Inc.]

Mann : Yeah. I said, “Man I don’t know, we’re getting pretty deep.” [We both laugh.] I said, “I don’t know if I can do that or not.” He said. “Take this album and try it.”

Morrison : So did he give you the South Pacific album ?

Mann : Uh, huh [singing slowly and dramatically : “some enchanted evening”]. I said, “Well, I don’t know if I can do that, man.” He said, “Well take it home and play it. I’d like you to do a couple of these songs : ‘Bali Ha’i’ and ‘Some Enchanted Evening.’ I especially want you to do ‘Some Enchanted Evening.’” So we took it home and worked on it and came up with it and recorded it. I never did like the song at the time, I mean it’s a great classic song, but a lot of people liked it. And I never did do it much, unless I had to.

Eddie Bush was really gifted and his style was so different of playing the guitar. I think that had a lot to do with my vocal style. I had listened to Lefty Frizzell and Lefty had a lot of influence on my style too. The variations and the way he twisted his voice [sings ”always la-i-y-a-yate”]. So in “Mona Lisa” I did the [hums the descending run]. I did that as Eddie was playing the guitar, I followed that run that he was doing. We started using that sort of a signature thing on everything I did pretty much. Eddie would kind of anticipate what I was going to do and we were both just right on the same wavelength. He could look at me and I could look at him and it was just like magic that we could see in each other what we was going to do. So he was really helpful to me. He advanced in his guitar picking so fast. It was just amazing to me and the licks he would get with the harmonics. I’d never heard nobody do it until this day and for a while it was really difficult for me to find some picker that could play it.

Eddie passed away in ’92 in Oklahoma. He’d played with a lot of groups after we split up and went back to play with Carl Belew and different groups, but Eddie was sort of a roamer and a drifter. He just kind of drifted all over the country, playing with different people. He drank and he got to drinking pretty much and so he finally became just a drifter that would stayed in missions around the country. He could really play when he got to the point, feeling just right. If he got too much he couldn’t play.

We had lost contact with him. He’d always come by or call me every year or two. We lost contact with him and his daughters lived in Jackson. I didn’t know. I had lost contact with them, hadn’t seen them since they were five and six years old. One day I went on a program with a guy named Bill Way in Jackson. He had a talk show and he wanted me to do an interview and I did a telephone interview. We got talking about Eddie Bush and his son-in-law heard us and called his wife and told her. Both the daughters called me and they were like 38 and 40. I hadn’t seen them since they was kids. So we met and got to searching for Eddie. They didn’t know what happened to him either, for 13 years. We finally tracked him down. I had called Carl Belew’s wife and they had put an ad in the paper in some town in Arkansas where his sister had lived and where Eddie’s brother-in-law was still living. He read that ad, called the girls and told them all about it and how they’d found Eddie on the street and took him to the Veterans’ Hospital and he passed away there. His two other sisters were contacted and went to the funeral.

Morrison : So he was already dead when you were looking for him.

Mann : Yes. This was some 13 years later. I had heard some stories that Eddie had had an accident or something and died but I couldn’t find out the details until I got with his daughters and we really got to tracking him and found out. Like I said, I called Carl Belew’s wife and she had told me that Eddie was dead. But I didn’t tell the daughters right then. She told me that he had died in a nursing home. I let a few days pass until I heard something back from the newspaper ad. I just couldn’t get up the nerve to go tell them. Finally I did before they found out from the newspaper ad that the brother-in-law had saw. And I went and told them. It was one of the hardest things I ever did. But a few days later they heard back from the brother-in-law who told him the whole deal, all the details.

Morrison : What a story ! What are you most proud of ?

Mann : I’m just proud that I was able to contribute something to the music field that was different, a different style, a different feel at the time. Some of them describe it as smooth as Jerry Lee. Jerry Lee by the way had a lot of influence on me too in the rock and roll, the rockers that I did later, and maybe even in “Mona Lisa” because of the piano.

Morrison : Did you know him ?

Mann : I met him down there just right after I recorded it. I had heard his stuff on the radio, “Crazy Arms” and “End of the Road” and a couple of others he had before “Whole Lot of Shakin’.”

Morrison : That was nice because you had Carl Perkins telling you that one was pretty good and you had Conway Twitty telling you the other one was pretty good. You had some nice encouragement.

Mann : Yeah. That was really encouraging. Mainly I’m just glad that I could contribute something to the music. Just to be remembered in that way that I contributed something to the music field that was different. One of Eddie Bush’s mottos was that he didn’t want to sound like nobody. Eddie would always get aggravated when somebody’d come up to him and say : I know so and so that can play just like Chet Atkins or just like “Sugarfoot” Garland or Grady Martin or somebody. Eddie would say. “Well they’ve already got one of each one.” It was great to hear pickers that could do that but Eddie just wanted to do something different.

One of the first tours I went on was the first tour I did after “Mona Lisa” came out, was a summer tour behind Buddy Holly, when they got killed. It was a Summer Dance Party. The same people that booked Buddy and them, GAC [General Artists Corporation, a talent agency] out of New York. Same road manager. We did the same circuit. Started in Chicago, Waukegan [Illinois], Green Bay. We went on up to Madison, played Osh Kosh I think, a bunch of different places in Wisconsin, then moved over in Iowa. During that time I left to do the Dick Clark Show and came back and hooked back up with them somewhere up here in Wisconsin. After that, W.S. took over, started playing regular with me and took over as my manager, road manager, and we signed with Cedarwood Talent Agency, Jim Denny Artist Bureau actually, and we started booking a lot of country artists. ’Cause at the time it was a cross-over record they didn’t know which way to place me. I started out with the guys from Philadelphia, some of ’em, and then switched over into the country side of it. So I was working in the middle. We did some shows with Johnny Cash, you know Johnny Cash tours with a lot of different country artists. That was before W.S. started playing with Johnny Cash. He quit Carl Perkins and started playing with me. He was with me about a year and then when me and him split up he went with Johnny Cash, played 40 years with Johnny.

Morrison : What did your parents think of your music ?

Mann : They sort of wanted me to stay in the gospel, and my mother regretted a few times showing me those three chords. Because they worried. She especially worried about me out there like any other mom would. My dad he didn’t say too much about it. But they liked the music. They listened to country music, my mother especially. She was having second thoughts, about [me] doing rock and roll, getting into that. She said, “I don’t know, that may be getting a little bit too vulgar.” A lot of people said that about Elvis when he started.

Morrison : Do you do some gospel songs now ?

Mann : I do some. I’m not doing any tonight but I usually do one or two on my shows. My dad sang too and played a little bit guitar. He would do “Wading Through Deep Waters,” an old southern gospel Pentecostal song. I did that one on a CD and I did “I Saw the Light.” My mother used to like that song and she sang that. I did one for each one of them.

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I have posted several other interviews with musicians from the 1950s and 1960s. To go to the index page, click here.

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