Charlie Feathers, 1980 with son Bubba on guitar.
If there was ever a case of one man being the living embodiment of one style or genre of music, surely the most perfect example of such a creature is Charlie Feathers, who, although he was perhaps one of the greatest country singers of all time, pretty much personified that character we know and love as ‘the rockabilly’. Born Arthur Lyndbergh Feathers in the country side between Slayden and Holly Springs, Mississippi on June 12, 1932 (a Gemini, like me), to sharecropper Leonard and his wife Lucy, he was one of seven children. In no style of rock’n’roll, or any other music for that matter have so many persons of Native American (or partial N.A.) heritage made their mark (Billy Lee Riley, Andy Starr, Jackie Lee Cochran, Marvin Rainwater, Jackie Morningstar, Link Wray, et al), and like so many other rockabillies, Feathers had much Cherokee blood running through his veins. He got his first guitar at age ten and an aunt showed him a few chords, but it was a black field hand named Junior Kimbrough who really gave him his first musical instruction. Kimbrough wouldn’t find musical fame until the 1990’s when he did quite well with a series of albums on the Fat Possum label, toured with Iggy Pop (whom he called Lollypop), and ran his own juke joint near Holly Springs. I’m already off the track. Charlie quit school in the third grade and went through life pretty much illiterate (yes, that photograph above is autographed, I have quite a collection of illierate’s autographs including the Chenier brothers Clifton and Cleveland, whom when I asked to sign a disc “to James” replied– “you lucky you gettin’ this…”).
He worked on an oil pipeline in Texas, where he would play country songs in juke joints after work, and at a box factory when in 1951 he contracted spinal meningitis. A protracted stay in hospital gave him plenty of time to write songs and perfect his musical chops and kept him out of the Army. After his recovery, he and his wife Rosemary headed for Memphis where he began hanging around 706 Union Ave– Sun Studio.
Here’s where Charlie’s version of the story diverges from nearly everyone elses. According to Feathers himself, it was he who arranged Elvis’ version of Blue Moon Of Kentucky and taught him to rock, even bringing the secret of “slap back”, the immediately identifiable echo effect created by running a piece of tape through two recorders, that today is often thought of as “the Sun Sound”, to Sam C. Phillips himself. Charlie alone stuck to this version of history, and on the tape of the alternate take of Blue Moon Of Kentucky (“Hell little Vi, that’s a pop song now” says Sam) his voice is nowhere to be heard. Scotty Moore backed up Sam Phillips version and I don’t think anyone ever bothered to ask Elvis. Still, Feathers stuck to his story, often adding strange details to it over the years including one that says Elvis was permitted to hang around the studio because he stole his mom’s diet pills (Dexedrine) and dispensed them freely around the place, and another rumour in which Elvis was part black. Great stories, personally I don’t believe them. Sam C. Phillips issued two singles on Feathers, both country–
b/w I’ve Been Deceived (Flip 503, issued April ’55) and Defrost Your Heart
b/w Wedding Gown Of White
(Sun 231, issued January ’56). Found in the vaults were some rock’n’roll material, upbeat versions of Corrine, Corrine and Frankie & Johnny probably recorded in ’56.
At this point Feathers had put together his own band– Jerry Huffman (guitar), Jody Chastain (bass) and Jimmy Swords (drums) who would stay with him for the next several years.
As Elvis was topping the charts, Feathers cut his first real rock’n’roll record– Get With It
b/w Tongue Tied Jill
, which Phillips turned down (he thought it made fun of people with speech impediments, which it does), so it was released by Sun’s cross town rival Meteor Records, run by Lester Bihari, older brother and family black sheep to the three Bihari brothers (Saul, Joe and Jules) who ran the Modern/RPM/Kent family of labels out in Los Angeles. They even gave brother Lester a sure fire hit with blues star Elmore James whom they had enticed away from Trumpet Records and deposited with their older brother. Tongue Tied Jill was a regional hit (#1 in Memphis for a week) but Meteor didn’t have it together to produced a national hit and soon Feathers, who would rather have been at Sun, was recording for cheapskate Syd Nathan at King Records.
The first four song session held in late ’56 at King’s Cincinnati studio resulted in two of the greatest 45’s ever unleashed– One Hand Loose
b/w Can’t Hardly Stand It
and Bottle To The Baby
b/w Everybody’s Lovin’ My Bab
y. Feathers hated them, King studio’s reverb tank was to his ears an awful substitute for Phillips’ slap back effect. His next King session was held at RCA’s Nashville studio, where Elvis had recorded Heartbreak Hotel and others. Excello doo wop group Johnny Bragg and the Marigolds (the same Johnny Bragg who had fronted Sun’s Prisonaires, small world), were added along with studio drummer Buddy Harmon replacing Jimmy Strong. Four excellent sides came of this session– Too Much Alike
b/ When You Come Around
and When You Decide
b/w Nobody’s Woman
, although not the rockin’ craziness of his first two King discs, they were good enough to be chart toppers, but these were the years when Payola ruled and Syd Nathan was vocally opposed to shelling out cash to disc jockeys. Feathers didn’t have a chance and by late ’57 had gone his own way. He didn’t record again until 1960 by which time his style of music was dead as a viable commercial concern. Not that it mattered to Feathers who made on of his finest records– Jungle Fever
, a creepy, echo filled chant, with the opening lines “Darkies…creeping through the trees” which fills the listener with a certain terror that’s hard to describe. The flip side Why Don’t You
, a fine rocker and a two sided instrumental credited to Jody Chastain– Jody’s Beat b/w My My came from the same session. Desperate, he returned to Sam Phillips and waxed a folk tune for Phillips’ Holiday Inn label– Dinky John b/w South Of Chicago, followed up by a country blues disc– Nobody’s Darlin’ b/w Deep Elm Blues for the same label. The former was his worst record ever and the latter a return to form.
From here, Feathers worked at an ambulance driver, stock car racer, and kept recording, making dozens of albums for as many labels, so many they’re hard to figure out. A full discography can be found here
. I’d say his best post-50’s sides were reserved for his own Feathers label, currently available on CD on Norton Records
, three CD’s worth of incredible rock’n’roll and country (and even a re-union with Junior Kimbrough that was originally released in the 1980’s as a 78). Wild Side Of Life
(Norton 332), Honky Tonk Kind
(Norton 333) and Long Time Ago
(Norton 334) are essential purchases. Another record I like was his 70’s 45 for rockabilly zionist Ronnie Weiser’s Rollin’ Rock label– She Set Me Free
b/w That Certain Female
. Feathers last record was his major label debut, cut with producer Ben Vaughn for Elektra in the early 90’s. It was recorded at Sun and issued on their Explorer series.
Charlie Feathers played in New York City exactly once, at the old Lone Star Cafe, it must have been around 1984-5. It was the height of the Stray Kats/RockKats/anybody with Kats in their name and a tatoo craze. Kids who last week had been dressed like the Clash all of a sudden were sculpting their hair into “quiffs” and talking about their love for Dickie”Be Bop” Harrell.
A few nights before, my pals– The Zantees (Billy Miller and Miriam Linna’s pre-A-Bones band) had opened for the Rock-Kats at some club uptown on 86th St, and the joint was packed with the aforementioned suede clod hopper wearing “kats” and girls with crinolines in the dresses.
I naturally expected with so many rockabilly fans about, the Charlie Feathers NYC debut would be a big deal and a packed house. The Zantees also opened the Charlie Feathers show. Which of course was nearly empty. The same dozen or so record collectors I saw at every gig I went to showed up, and not one “quiff” in sight. The trendoids preferred the imitation to the real thing and stayed home in mass, no doubt to work on their hair and clothes. If Charlie Feathers was disappointed in the turn out, it didn’t show in his set for he was spectacular. He had more vocal tricks than George Jones, hiccuping and sputtering his way through a 45 minute set that remains one of the purest and finest things I’ve ever witnessed. I think I even wrote about it in the Village Voice, but I can’t find the clipping. Charlie wouldn’t autograph a record for me, but he did sign a photo (see above), and was quite friendly in a taciturn sort of way. I remember his manager Billy Poore seemed very stressed out over the whole thing. He never returned to New York City, and I never saw him play again. He died of throat cancer in 1998, and these days his songs can be heard in Quentin Tarintino movies. He might not have had the popular success of Elvis, but he outlived him by 22 years, and probably made just as many great records. I wonder where all those geeks with the quiffs went? How many “Love this Kat” tattoos have been covered over, and if any of them ever bought a Charlie Feathers record? Who know? Who cares? It’s never too late to find the good stuff….that’s what I’m here for.