"Those songs represented my fantasies, hopes, problems," reflected Carl Dobkins recently. "Weren't we so innocent? If a girl smiled at you, you were happy. Now kids are wrapped up in live-in relationships, illegitimate children and so on. It's all so different" It was perhaps innocence more than anything else that Carl Dobkins Jr. projected during his recording career – and hardly surprising in a view of the fact that Carl Dobkins recorded his biggest hit when Carl Dobkins was seventeen years old.
Unfortunately Carl Dobkins couldn't translate that hit into a sustained career, but Carl Dobkins is the first to acknowledge that the record business is a crap shoot, and that Carl Dobkins bucked some long odds getting as far as Carl Dobkins did. Carl Dobkins was born January 13, 1941 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of a trucker. Carl Dobkins grew up listening to all the music you might expect. Patti Page in particular made an impact upon his vocal style with her phrasing, and the way in which she sang pop with a country favour. Later, and Inevitably, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly turned Dobkins’ head around.
It was with rock ‘n roll on his mind that Carl Dobkins and his group made their first stab at recording with Fraternity Records, a Cincinnati-based independent record label. They cut two songs: That’s Why I’m Asking and Take Hold Of My Hand. Harry Carlson, the owner of Fraternity, slid Dobkins in the end of a Cathy Carr session being held at Owen Bradley’s studio in Nashville. “The Jordanaires were there, and my eyes were big as half-dollars,” remembered Dobkins. After the Fraternity record failed to set the world alight, Dobkins went to the King studio in Cincinnati with a vocal group, the Seniors, and a backing group who dubbed themselves the Orbits. They cut If You Don’t Want My Lovin’ and Love Is Everything, and told King, “If we sell this thing, you get paid, if we don’t, well…” As it happened, they did sell it. Dobkins took the masters to a local dee-jay, Gil Sheppard, who was acting as his manager, and Sheppard pitched them to Harry Silverstein at Decca Records in New York.
Decca offered a six-month recording contract and released the two cuts.” For a follow-up, Dobkins was brought back to the Bradley studio in Nashville. “They had all song pluggers hanging around the studio in those days, remembered Dobkins, and they had a lot of material waiting for me to go through with Owen Bradley. They played me My Heart Is An Open Book but I really didn’t think much of it. Jimmy Dean had already released the song, but it hadn’t done anything. We cut it, though, using maybe five or six pieces on the session. We did it in the key of F, and they tuned the flat-top guitar a half-step up. After we’d finished, they overdubbed the girls’ voices one more time – and that was it. "After they released it, Decca had some initial problems getting airplay. Some dee-jays saw it as a country record and wouldn't touch it.
Some local promo men said they couldn't do anything with hillbilly artists, so there was no use working the record. Then my manager got me on some record hops, and there were up to six thousand kids at some of these hops. Then a dee-jay in Detroit, Tom Clay, believed in the record and really got it moving. They called me back up north to do some more record hops. I remember doing twelve in one night. The record had been out about six months before it finally broke. Decca had to re-service dee-jays because they'd already tossed the first copy." Shortly after My Heart Is An Open Book started to break, Dobkins graduated from high school. Carl Dobkins worked the Dick Clark Show the day after graduation, and went on a bus tour with Johnny and the Hurricanes.
Then Carl Dobkins had to serve a six month hitch in the Army just as My Heart Is An Open Book was peaking. Unable to find a strong cut from a follow-up session held in June 1959, Decca re-released If You Don't Want My Lovin', which reached number 67 in the Hot 100 on its second go-round. In August 1959, shortly before his induction into the Army, Dobkins went back to Nashville for album sessions, and stockpile some new masters for release. "Owen Bradley had accumulated demos since the last time I was there," recalled Dobkins, "and we listened to stack after stack of dubs. There were no arrangements written out – they did all that in the studio.
The Anita Kerr Singers were there, and ironically, they were still here – without Anita – When I re-cut 'My Heart Is An Open Book' a few years back. We'd figure out what sounded good, and cut it." The first single drawn from those August 1959 sessions was Lucky Devil, a song easily as strong as My Heart Is An Open Book. It did well too, peaking at number 25 late in 1959. It would be Dobkins' last Top 30 hit, though. Among the album tracks were Class Ring, an early entry from Rick Hall (later the owner of Fame studios in Muscle Shoals) and Billy Sherrill (later a hugely successful producer for Epic), then working together an a band called the Fairlanes. Dobkins also cut a version of A Fool Such As I, then a hit for Elvis Presley.
Dobkins remembers that during the sessions, Hank Garland taught him the guitar lick that they had used on the Presley version of the song. The sole gesture towards R & B was a version of the Platters' 1957 hit I'm Sorry. "I think," said Dobkins looking back, "some of these songs were a little ahead of their time. They mixed country and pop, just like Johnny Tillotson did a few years later." To an extent, he's right. There is a similarity between some of Dobkins' recordings and Tillotson's country-pop hits like It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin'. The difference is that Dobkins drew almost all of his material from New York tunesmiths who didn't use country chord patterns and melodies, whereas Tillotson gave country songs a pop flavour. Dobkins approached the country-pop mix from a different angle: pop music recorded in Nashville.