Rock’n’roll’s a loser’s game, as Mott The Hoople once explained to us. At least it was until the jocks and the cheerleader’s’ parents decided it would be “cool” for them to be in rock bands.
That’s a topic for another day, today’s subject– Jimmy Donley, just might’ve been the biggest loser of them all, and he knew it. Born James Kenneth Donley, Aug. 17, 1929, in the small hamlet of Jonestown, Mississippi to an abusive father and doting mother, he was called Kenny by his family, and he grew to be a foul tempered tyke who at age three grabbed his father’s pistol and fired off two rounds at his three year old cousin Catherine when she refused to get off of his tricycle. Our irritable anti-hero dropped out of school at his father’s urging at age sixteen to take a job on the docks of Gulfport, Mississippi, unloading banana boats. A stevedore’s life was not for young Jimmy and in 1948 he enlisted in the U.S. Army. After boot camp he was stationed in Panama in the Canal Zone, it was there he developed a taste for marijuana and for Army issued amphetamines.
White trash is as white trash does. On duty in the Canal Zone he was arrested and thrown in the brig after holding a knife to a non-commissioned officer’s throat and declaiming– “I ain’t gonna take no orders from a nigger, my daddy wouldn’t have have let you get away with it. If you try anything I’ll slit your throat”.* He was given a dishonorable discharge, Section Eight, and shipped back to Gulfport in October of 1949.
Back in Mississippi he began singing in local nightclubs and went through four marriages in four years (1950-54). Donley was a bad drunk and an abusive husband who would go through the rest of his short life using women as punching bags, and worse.
He was, however, a fine singer who sounded black, and also a superlative songwriter with a natural talent for plaintive ballads. His biggest influence was Fats Domino, whom he could mimic uncannily. Fats would later record seven of his tunes, although Donely’s name only shows up on the songwriting credits of one of them since he, as often as not, sold his writing and publishing rights for quick cash, sometimes as little as $50. Whether or not he would have taken orders from Fats is unknown, but they later became friends.
As Donley developed a following around the redneck Riviera, he came to the attention of local promoter Pee Wee Maddux who brought him to Decca Records. Decca signed him in 1956, sending him to Nashville to record under the aegis of producer Owen Bradley, and his first single– Quit Kickin’ My Hound b/w Come Away was released in early 1957. It failed to sell, and I don’t own a copy, but it’s a pretty good, not great disc, I’ll track down a copy one of these days. His second single– South of the Border b/w Trail Of The Lonesome Pine, a somewhat lackluster affair also sunk without a trace. It wasn’t until his third Decca platter Baby How Long b/w I Gotta Go that he start selling records, almost exclusively in the Mississippi/Louisiana/East Texas area where it was a strong regional seller. No wonder, he sounds so much like Fats Domino, the biggest star the region has ever produced (and second in record sales only to Elvis Presley in the first rock’n’roll era) it’s scary. He even adopted Fats’ “wah-wah-wah-wah” falsetto cry and rolling second line beat.
No doubt he was a southern DJ and promoter’s dream– a white guy who sounded just like Fats Domino, a dream come true at least until they met him. Donely’s consistently fucked up every opportunity handed to him. His fourth Decca single would be the song most identified with him for the rest of his life– Born To Be A Loser (later covered by Jerry Lee Lewis) b/w Please Baby Come Home. Born To Be A Loser is the type of south Louisiana minor key ballad that, as they say, is sung in the “key of heartbreak”. Although it never charted nationally, it was huge in the Gulf Coast area.
His next release was the novelty number Radio, Jukebox and TV b/w I’m Alone, another still born disc, followed soon by one of his best sides ever– The Shape You Left Me In b/w What I Must Do, the a-side being a rocker in the key of self pity. Again, it was a big regional record on the Gulf Coast and unknown practically everywhere else. It was now 1959 and rock’n’roll was changing, greaseball rockers and screaming black men with conks were out, guys named Bobby from Philadelphia in sweaters were in. Decca issued three more singles between 1959-62, Give Me My Freedom b/w Now I Know, I Can’t Love You b/w Our Love, and I’ve Been There b/w My Baby’s Gone, none as good as what had preceded them and the label soon lost interest in attempting to promote his discs when it was obvious his offstage life was completely out of control: an orgy of arrests, bar room brawls, beaten women, car wrecks and suicide attempts. Decca did not renew his contract and in 1962 he signed with Houston based Huey P. Meaux’s Teardrop label.
Meaux’s story is even more colorful than Donley’s, for he was perhaps the greatest rock’n’roll producer to do Federal time for the crime of pedophilia. He would be involved in hit records from soul chanteuse Barbara Lynn’s You’ll Lose A Good Thing to Texas rockers the Sir Douglas Quintet’s She’s About A Mover, right up to Rockin’ Sydny’s surprise 1984 smash My Toot Toot. He operated out of his barber shop, and was a hustler’s hustler to put it mildly.
1959 also saw two more pivotal moments in Donley’s sad life. He would meet and marry his fifth and final wife, and muse–Lillie Mae, who would inspire many of his greatest tunes (and be on the receiving end of his most out of control freak outs) and also met his idol Fats Domino who would go on to record seven of his tunes, including What A Price (here’s Donley’s demo version), a song written when Lillie Mae walked out on him after a particularly brutal beating. Before meeting Lillie Mae, when not on tour, he had taken to living in his car. Teardrop would issue a handful of singles by Donley, all good regional sellers including Please Mr. Sandman, Think It Over , I’m To Blame, I Really Got The Blues, a Ray Charles sounding twistplotation record– Honey, Stop That Twistin’ and the eerie Strange Strange Feeling among my personal favorites. Don’t look for Donley’s name on the songwriting credits, he sold them to Meaux for “considerations”, most likely the price of a bottle or bail money. These were truly tunes in the “key of heartbreak”. His relationship with Fats Domino blossomed and he would provide six more songs for the Fat man with the big diamond rings. Here are his demos for Rockin’ Bicycle, Domino Twist, Stop The Clock, as well as a wonderful un-issued number cut for Teardrop called Oh How It Hurts that wasn’t released until thirty years after his passing. Fats would also cut Donley’s Hold Hands, Nothing New (Same Old Thing), Bad Luck and Trouble, and I’ve Been Calling.
Should I work in that overused expression “downward spiral” now? In Johnnie Allan and Bernice Larson Webb’s incredible biography of Donley– Born To Be A Loser: The Story Of A Rock’n’Roll Poet’s Tragic Life (Jadfel, 1992, and yes, it’s the same Johnnie Allen who recorded the best ever version of Chuck Berry’s The Promised Land among other great Cajun rockers). Allan and Webb recount an ever escalating cycle of booze, drugs, jealous rages (he once found a photo of Lash Larue his second wife clipped out of a magazine and almost beat her to death), senseless violence and cruelty to Lillie Mae, partying, arrests, suicide attempts, gun incidents, car wrecks, trashed hotel rooms, songs sold for a pittance, disappointment, and worse. It’s one of the best, and most disturbing rock’n’roll biographies I’ve ever read. No home library should be without a copy. Lillie Mae stuck with Donley through it all, how and why we shall never know. I will not defend a man who beats on women, I’ve watched too many episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for that. But his musical legacy cannot be denied. After each drunken escapade he would wake up drowning in guilt, regret and self hatred, begging Lillie Mae to take him back. He could direct all the self loathing and self pity that welled up inside him and turn it into heart breaking, spine tingling music. Probably the reason she stayed around as long as she did.
By early 1963 his penchant for self-annihilation was reaching new lows. Lillie Mae seemed to be finally ready to escape his abusive clutches and his adoring mother passed away. He tried to return to the church, but the call of the bar room rang too loudly in his ears. He was back to living in his car. Finally, on March 20th of that year, Jimmy Donley pulled his vehicle to the side of a road, stuck a rubber hose on the exhaust pipe and ran it into the window and turned on the engine. He’d finally done something beside singing and writing tunes, correctly, asphyxiating himself with carbon monoxide. He had screwed up at least four previous suicide attempts. James Kenneth Donley was thirty four years old with little to show for it other than a rap sheet full of petty crimes and a couple of dozen 45’s with his name on them. The copyrights to his tunes were long gone.** Like others whose name are known only in that culturally unique area such as Joe Barry, Dale & Grace, and Rod Bernard, on the Gulf Coast, Donley remains a local legend, a star even. Jimmy Donley seemed to be on every jukebox from Biloxi to the Galveston, but most especially in the area just west of New Orleans where his records sat beside such local hits as Rod Bernard’s This Should Go On Forever, Jivin’ Gene’s Breakin’ Up Is Hard To Do, Tommy McClain’s Sweet Dreams, until the century changed. Maybe they still are, I haven’t driven that patch in ten years. Today this type of music, with an emphasis on minor key ballads and the pronounced influence of Fats Domino is often referred to as “Swamp Pop” (think of Phil Phillips’ smash Sea Of Love as the definitive Swamp Pop record). Back then it was just the south Louisiana sound, or more aptly– the Fats Domino sound. Jimmy Donley was certainly a loser, but we listeners get to win every time we hear one of his records— in the key of heartbreak.
* Quote taken from Johnnie Allen and Bernice Lawson Webb’s Born To Be A Loser (Jadfel, 1992), pages 83-84.
** Pages 325-326 of Allen and Lawson’s book contain a chart of who Donley sold his songs to and for how much. It makes for quite fascinating reading.
Addendum: For those who don’t bother to read the comments, Retreat From Oblivion (is that
Albanian?) reminds us the WFMU has posted this incredible aircheck from Huey Meaux’s radio show. Other vintage airchecks can be found here.
Addendum #2: A couple of Jimmy Donley stories came my way via Dick Blackburn who got ’em right from the Crazy Cajun (Huey Meaux)’s mouth (so they must be true):
1) Owen Bradley offered to sell Donley’s management contract to Meaux after Donley threatened Bradley at gunpoint to “take those bitches off my record” (I assume meaning the Anita Kerr singers who sang back up on his Decca sides).
2) Donley had an open Bible beside him in the car when he snuffed himself, opened to the same
pages that the minister would unknowingly read at his funeral. Wonder what the scripture was? Anyone want to guess?
3) Blackburn asked Meaux if he had any idea that Donley would commit suicide and Meaux replied- “Well, yea, I figured something was troublin’ him after he went and made hisself a rat poison sandwich and ate it. Face turned yeller and swolled up and he had to go into the hospital”.
Thanks for the antidotes Dick!