Who was/is Lee Emerson ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
Lee Emerson with Marty Robbins
It's So Easy For You To Be Mean
Lee Emerson left no interviews and memories of him are mixed. To some, he was a gregarious, easy-to-know, easy-to-like guy; to others, he was a mean drunk and pill-head. His tortuous path down country music's main streets and back alleys placed him face-to-face with the rich and famous. For eight or nine years, he was Marty Robbins' sidekick. Did Emerson feel that the limelight belonged to him as well, or was he content to be a behind-the-scenes player? It's hard to say. As these recordings amply show, he was no slouch as either a singer or songwriter. On his earlier recordings, his voice is lithe and personable, on the later sides, it's deeper and coarser, but more soulful. He wrote a couple of country standards, I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name and Ruby Ann, together with about eighty other published songs. Quite a few of his songs became hits, but not sufficiently big hits for Emerson to be listed among the iconic songwriters of the era. A few of his recordings find their way onto anthologies, but only a few. Sadly but inevitably, he's best known these days for the manner of his death.
Lee Emerson Bellamy was born in St. Paul, Virginia on May 15, 1927. "My grandfather had a farm," said Emerson's son, Rod Bellamy, "and there were coal mines right behind the house. When they needed heat, he'd go chip out some coal from an abandoned mine. They lived in a log home, a cabin, in the mountains. My grandmother quilted and had quilts stacked to the ceiling. They pumped water from a well. I just saw them one time. Just poor country folks." Rod Bellamy says that his father drove decoy cars for bootleggers back in Virginia. He'd drive as fast as possible to get the revenuers to chase him while the bootleggers made off in another direction. Emerson was in the Marines during World War II and received a Purple Heart for injuries sustained at Okinawa. Enlistment age was seventeen, so he would have been eligible to enlist in 1944. By the time Lee Emerson got out of the Marines, he already had a good number of stories to tell.
Emerson married Roberta Mildred Smith from Billings, Montana. He stored his medals and service artefacts at his parents' house and moved out west. For a while, he drove a dump truck and worked in a copper mine in Butte, Montana, but through it all he had a band going. "He was a good baseball player, too," says Rod Bellamy. "He played Double A baseball when we lived in Montana. And then we lived in Minot, North Dakota and had a little tavern there. We lived in Billings, and when I was in first grade we were in Lewiston, Idaho. Dad owned the Pair-o-Dice Club in Lewiston. My mother's father had a tavern in Billings, I think it was called Smitty's, and they had another little tavern in Silesia, Montana and we ran that for a while. We catered to the guys who worked the railroad. Had a dance floor and stage, and my dad sang there. Somewhere along the way he met Tommy Collins, maybe others, and they'd all say, 'You gotta go to Nashville.' I guess we moved there in 1954 or '55. We stayed with a guy named Eddie Crandall for a while. He was living in East Nashville."
It was probably 1955 when the Bellamys arrived in Nashville. Early that year, Eddie Crandall got his start in the music business as Marvin Rainwater's road manager. Rainwater was based in Washington, DC, at the time but—by March—Crandall and Rainwater were in Nashville. A few months later, Crandall was managing George Morgan, and by the end of the year he was handling Marty Robbins (on a Robbins show in Lubbock in October 1955, Crandall spotted Buddy Holly and offered to get him a recording and publishing deal). Along the way, Crandall became the more or less permanent boyfriend of Hank Williams' widow, Audrey.
Before leaving the west, Bellamy made a record as Lee Smith for Wagon Wheel Records in Cody, Wyoming (slogan: "Rolling out of the West to You"). The record was released on 78 and 45RPM, but it appears as if no other Wagon Wheel records ever rolled out of the west to anywhere. Perhaps the Wagon Wheel record served as a calling card in Nashville. If so, it served its purpose. When Emerson's first Columbia record was released in September 1955, he wasn't managed by Crandall but by Ferlin Husky's longtime associate, Bob Ferguson. When Emerson first attracted attention in the trade papers that September he was called a "semi-pro ballplayer turned country music performer." It was unusual for a relatively untested artist to get a recording contract so quickly. Emerson was signed by Columbia's Don Law, and Law's pal, music publisher Troy Martin, published two of the four songs on Emerson's first session, so it's possible that Martin had some influence on Law's decision. It is usually assumed that Emerson was signed to Columbia at Marty Robbins' instigation, but his deal with the label probably predates his association with Robbins. The four songs on the first session were among Emerson's least distinguished compositions, and Don Law gave them assembly-line productions. Better things were in store.
Rod Bellamy doesn't know when or how his father became associated with Marty Robbins, but the two had become sufficiently close for Robbins to do two duets with Emerson in April 1956 and another in September when Marty was in the studio recording folk songs with just his guitar. Robbins rarely recorded duets with anyone, so that alone gives some sense of the high esteem in which he held Emerson. On the two solo songs from the April '56 session Emerson flirted with rockabilly. There's great hustle on the previously unreleased I'm Gonna Rise And Shine Tonight and I Cried Like A Baby. One of the duets with Marty, I'll Know You're Gone, rocks along nicely as well. The first duet single coupled I'll Know You're Gone with How Long Will It Be and was released on June 25, 1956 when Marty's career was a holding pattern. The second duet single coupled Where D'Ja Go with I Cried Like A Baby, and came out on March 11, 1957 when Marty was high in the charts with Singing The Blues and had just released A White Sport Coat. But neither duet single charted, even locally.
Emerson would eventually see a pretty good payday from the September '56 session. He recorded his original version of I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name, and although his own version made very little impact, it was covered by Porter Wagoner in June 1957 and Porter's record reached #11...a pretty good showing for a stone hillbilly record at the beginning of the Nashville Sound era. Later, the song became a hit for Pam Hobbs (1981) and Jessi Colter (1976). Later still, George Strait and many bluegrass bands recorded it.
Ironically, Emerson's first hit wasn't his own. Johnny Horton came to Nashville for a Columbia session on April 11, 1957. A no-hoper rockabilly, Tommy Blake, pitched him a song, Honky Tonk Mind, without telling him that he intended to record it for RCA several days later. Horton's songs were published with Cedarwood Music and Blake's with Tree. When Horton found out that Blake had assigned the song to Tree and had recorded it himself, he changed the title to Woman I Need and credited the composition to Lee Emerson, who had another song on the session, Goodbye Lonesome, Hello Baby Doll. The calumny was hardly worth the grief; Woman I Need charted for one week only.
Lee Emerson worked many tours with Marty, and Marty would rely upon him to act as his bouncer. If there was a drunk interrupting the show, Marty would point him out and Emerson would go into the audience to encourage him to leave. In August 1957, Emerson and Marty Robbins formed the Lee-Mart Agency to book artists. Bobby Helms was their major client. According to Rod Bellamy, Lee-Mart even opened up an office in Hollywood to look into movie opportunities. In October '57, while still running Lee-Mart, Emerson formed a partnership with Herb Shucher, who'd moved to Nashville from Boston to take over Jim Reeves' management. The Emerson-Shucher Agency was formed to book country artists into fairs, but Reeves wanted Shucher to concentrate on his career alone, and, in January 1958, Shucher sold his interest in the agency to Emerson. Bobby Helms entered the picture as a partner in another venture, Le-Bob. "Dad had a photostatic memory," said Rod Bellamy. "He had clubs and club owners and the telephone numbers memorized. It would just amaze everyone. And I think maybe Marty's career took off so big with 'A White Sport Coat' and so on that they decided dad would concentrate on the business, and Marty would concentrate on the music." This could be the case because Lee Emerson's Columbia recording career was over by mid-1957, precisely two years after it started. The last session was by far the most commercial. Emerson was in excellent voice, and the production was classic Nashville with most of Marty Robbins' band in support. What A Night and Catch That Train are classic Nashville rock 'n' roll. Not as anarchic as some small label productions maybe, but the session guys throw it down, while Emerson sounds wholly engaged. Another song from the last Columbia session, Start All Over, gave Emerson a small payday in 1960 when Bob Gallion placed it on the B-side of his hit, Loving You.
Lee Emerson It's So Easy For You To Be Mean
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