Who was/is Johnnie & Jack ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
Johnnie & Jack
So Lovely Baby- Move It On Over
" I had never been to Nashville," wrote Doug Kershaw, "so I jumped at the chance when this fellow from Crowley [songwriter/producer Jay Miller] asked if I would help him drive. I said, 'Hell Yes.' Sure enough two days later I find myself scared to death sitting in a corner of a (closet sized) studio while this fellow from Crowley he's rapping to Mr. Wesley Rose and Mr. Joe Lucus about this great group he'd discovered and this great hit record he had just recorded on his very local label in Crowley. So this fellow from Crowley punched the old Ampex. Mr. Rose was smiling. Mr. Lucus was smiling. The fellow from Crowley was smiling, but the old Ampex wasn't. It took the tape and stretched it and the fellow from Crowley cried and yelled, 'My only tape of this hit!' Mr. Rose said, 'Good, I'll take 'em.' Then Doug Kershaw smiled." The song was So Lovely Baby, a wonderfully spirited and engaging disc, due in no small measure to Wiley Barkdull's bass vocal weaving in and out of the song. The Hickory logs tell us that it was recorded on May 24, 1955, and six weeks later Johnnie and Jack recorded it with Culley Holt singing Barkdull's part.
Johnnie & Jack For Old Times Sake, incl. Poison Love
Johnnie and Jack would have been one of the great brother duets …if they'd been brothers. Instead, the brothers-in-law are quite simply one of the great duets in country music history. They first sang together in 1938, at the height of the craze for singing brother duos, and they stayed together until Jack Anglin's death in 1963. During that time, they witnessed several major upheavals in country music, even played a role in them.
Both Johnnie Wright and Jack Anglin were born on May 13; Johnnie in 1914, and Jack two years later. They were one of the few major Nashville acts actually from the Nashville area. Johnnie was born in Mt. Juliet and Jack in Franklin. Both Mount Juliet and Franklin were farming communities when Johnnie and Jack were born, although they're part of the Nashville urban sprawl now. Jack Anglin was on Nashville's WSIX in 1936 when he met Johnnie Wright for the first time. Johnnie led Johnnie Wright and the Harmony Girls, featuring Ellen Muriel Deason, who later became his wife, and then became Kitty Wells. Jack was part of a family act that included his brother, Jim, who wrote many of Johnnie & Jack's finest songs. Jack and the Anglin Brothers recorded for Vocalion on November 5, 1937. By 1938, the Anglins were back in Nashville, and Jack married Johnnie's sister, Louise, that year. When the Ohio River flooded, Johnnie and Jack came together as the Backwater Boys to perform a benefit concert, but had no thought then of forming an act. Johnnie became a cabinetmaker, but he and Jack continued to play together. Sounding a little too like the Monroe Brothers, they tried out for the Grand Ole Opry, but were turned down. In 1940, the Delmore Brothers' manager, George Peek, hired them because the Delmores had split up, and he wanted a duo to take over their radio spot in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Johnnie & Jack began on WBIG, Greensboro during the winter of 1940/1941, moved from there to WCHS in Charleston, West Virginia, and then on to Knoxville in June 1942. Wartime gas rationing derailed them in Knoxville. Jack left to join Roy Acuff, and then, in July 1943, he was conscripted into the Army Medical Corps. Johnnie worked civilian jobs for a while, then assembled a troupe in Knoxville with Eddie Hill and Chet Atkins. Jack Anglin joined them as soon as he was out of the service, and they relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina before coming to Nashville to work on WSM. During their year back in Nashville, they began recording for Apollo, then recorded again for King as part of the King Sacred Quartet. Those early records sold negligibly.
Very early in 1948, Johnnie & Jack and Kitty Wells (now minus Eddie Hill and Chet Atkins) joined the Bailes Brothers at KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana, and were well established there when KWKH launched its soon-to-be-famous barndance, the Louisiana Hayride, in April 1948. Meanwhile, Chet Atkins had joined RCA Victor and persuaded RCA's head of country A&R, Steve Sholes, to sign Johnnie & Jack. The first session included one of the duo's finest ever performances, What About You. It had been written by Jim Anglin when his wife deserted him shortly after he left the armed services. Hank Williams later said that it was one of his favorite songs, and he can be heard performing it on a Mother's Best show. For Old Times Sake also comes from that first RCA session, and later became a minor bluegrass standard.
Johnnie & Jack's breakthrough came with Poison Love, recorded on March 27, 1950. Shreveport entrepreneur Tillman Franks had been in a band with Claude King and Buddy Attaway. They were working on radio in Houston, and their sponsor was a car dealer named Elmer Laird. The three of them were working on Poison Love when Laird was stabbed to death by an irate customer in front of his dealership. The trio finished the song, then credited it to Mrs. Elmer Laird. Johnnie & Jack recorded it in Nashville, and took up a suggestion from studio bassist Ernie Newton that they set it to a brisk Latin rhythm. Newton strapped maraccas to his hand and attached a snare drum head to his upright bass. "He'd hit the bass string with his finger,” Johnnie told Eddie Stubbs, "and shake his hand on the offbeat.” Eddie Hill attended the session and figured that he could learn the brisk chord changes, so he was conscripted to play the very prominent acoustic guitar. The result was country, but different enough to attract attention. It became a big hit, peaking at #4. "Ernie Newton deserves all the credit for that,” Johnnie declared later.
The follow-up session included two Louvin Brothers songs, I'm Gonna Love You One More Time and Take My Ring From Your Finger, and another stellar Jim Atkins composition, I Can't Tell My Heart That. By this point, Johnnie & Jack had moved back to Knoxville, then on to Raleigh, North Carolina. The Spring of 1951 found them working out of WEAS in Decatur, Georgia before they returned to the Louisiana Hayride in June that year. They were back at the Hayride when their next major hit, Cryin' Heart Blues, charted. "We learned that song when we were working at WEAS,” Johnnie told Eddie Stubbs. "The program director was named Warren Roberts. He had this song he wanted us to listen to. It was on sheet music, so I said, 'Well, you'll have to play it for us because we don't read music.' Warren…came out in the studio and got at the piano and played it for us.” They recorded it in Atlanta with Johnnie playing the maraccas and Jack playing the acoustic guitar runs. It reached #5 on the country charts during the Fall of 1951. Another fine Jim Anglin song, Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide, was cut at the same session.
Still in Shreveport, but trying hard to secure another berth on the Opry, Johnnie & Jack returned to Nashville in October 1951 to record a session that included Pee Wee King's You Tried To Ruin My Name and a song that was originally seen as its flip side, Jim Atkins' Ashes Of Love. Steve Sholes came out of the control room to play sticks on Ashes Of Love, and although it wasn't a hit for Johnnie & Jack, it became a standard. Among those taking it to the charts in later years were Don Gibson (1968), Dickey Lee (1972), Jody Miller (1976), The Amazing Rhythm Aces (1978), and the Desert Rose Band (1987). Yet another top-drawer song, Three Ways Of Knowing, also came from that October '51 session, and followed Cryin' Heart Blues to the charts, but figuring out the authorship isn't easy. Tillman Franks insists that he wrote it, then gave it to Nelson King and Jimmie Davis in exchange for airplay on his managerial client, Webb Pierce. Nelson King was an influential dee-jay and thus a logical candidate for such a deal, but Davis was more a politician than a singer at the time. Tillman, incidentally, says that Nelson King became more forthright about asking for a piece of songs after Hank Williams gave him a share of There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight. Regardless of authorship, Three Ways Of Knowing rose to #7 on the country charts, and became Johnnie & Jack's third hit.
The hit streak earned a return to the Opry in January 1952, and Johnnie & Jack and Kitty Wells would remain based in Nashville from that point. Heart Trouble was yet another Jim Anglin tune, and once again Steve Sholes came from the control room to play sticks. They returned to straight country music at an October '52 session, cutting Jim Anglin's The Only One I Ever Loved I Lost, which became a much-requested song on showdates, but didn't chart. Kitty Wells later recorded it on her 'Seasons Of My Heart' album in 1960. Looking once more for a hit, they returned to the Latin feel at an April 1953 session. Johnnie Wright told Eddie Stubbs how they came to record South In New Orleans. "Jim wrote it, " he said, "and we were talking about how to make it different. I said, 'Well let me holler out, we make love to the rhumba beat.”' Then Jack and Eddie would come in with me on "down south in New Orleans.” Jack was going to play guitar and we tried it three or four times, and finally Jack said,''Chet, come in here and play this thing.' Eddie Hill wasn't playing guitar, just singing. It was Ray Edenton playing the calypso/rhumba beat.” Edenton also played the lead guitar that kicked off Don't Say Goodbye If You Love Me, a Jimmie Davis song credited to Davis and Tex Ritter's steel guitarist, Bonnie Dodd. The Anglin Brothers had sung it back in the 1930s, and Davis had recorded in March 1936 (when it was credited to himself and A.T. Watts).
From a session at the close of 1953, there's a version of a lovely old song, I Loved You Better Than You Ever Knew. The Anglins had recorded it for Vocalion, and the Carter Family cut it in 1933. Although credited to A. P. Carter, it dated back to an 1893 song by Johnny Carroll. Johnnie & Jack's version is credited to early country performer Fisher Hendley (performer of Nigger Will You Work and Let Your Shack Burn Down, both 1925). S.O.S. was a gimmicky Jim Atkins song that was held back for two years, then released in two versions, one without the morse code for radio and one with the morse code for home use.
Nothing seemed to be working for Johnnie & Jack at this point. They'd outworn the Latin beat, so they moved on to another hot trend: covering R&B songs. Their first stab at R&B came at a February '54 when they cut the Four Knights' (Oh Baby Mine) I Get So Lonely. "We played it on a jukebox in Little Rock,” Johnnie told Eddie Stubbs. "I liked it. It sounded like something we could do, so we copied the lyrics down and learned the melody. We asked Chet Atkins what he thought, and he said, 'Well, let's give it a try.'” Sometime Jordanaire Culley Holt was recruited to sing the bass part. It became a hit; in fact, Johnnie & Jack's biggest ever hit, peaking at #1. The Statler Brothers later took it to #2. Johnnie & Jack stuck with their R&B kick, covering the Spaniels' Goodnight Sweetheart, again with Culley Holt, and it reached #3. Jim Atkins' B-side, Honey, I Need You, also charted. Figuring that they'd found a new groove, Johnnie & Jack recorded a country version of Kiss Crazy Baby, which had been recorded by the Crackerjacks, the Delta Rhythm Boys, and orchestra leader Ralph Marterie. It became a #7 country hit in 1955. The flip-side, Beware Of It, also charted. It was written by the original Mister-Write-to-Order, Cy Coben. Coben's astonishing ability to crank songs in any style on any subject impressed Steve Sholes, who became his best client.
As the rock 'n' roll era dawned, Johnnie & Jack recorded a two-song session that yielded two cover versions, one old and one new. No One Dear But You was written and first recorded by the Memphis country star Bud Deckelman, whose biggest hit, Daydreamin', had been covered by Jimmy C. Newman. With that in the can, Johnnie & Jack turned to an old Fred Rose song, We Live In Two Different Worlds, first recorded by Rose's business partner, Roy Acuff. No One Dear But You dented the charts during the Summer of 1955, and was followed by the belatedly issued S.O.S. later that year.
Returning to straight country, Johnnie & Jack, together with Johnnie and Kitty's daughter, Ruby, recorded a lovely Bailes Brothers' song, I Want To Be Loved. Johnnie leads the verses and is echoed at the end of each line by Jack and Ruby. Their adaptation helped make the song a minor bluegrass standard, and most versions these days take their cue from Johnnie & Jack's faster reading. On release during the Spring of 1956, it rose to #13 on the country charts, but stayed just three weeks. It was clear by this point that times were changing, and Johnnie & Jack would soon feel as though they had no option but to change with them. First, though, they recorded a fine, enduring session with Grandpa Jones that included an old song they'd learned from the Blue Sky Boys, Why Not Confess. "The Blue Sky Boys were the first I ever heard sing it,” Johnnie told Eddie Stubbs. "I sang this during '42 and '43 when we worked at WNOX in Knoxville. Eddie Hill and I used to do it as a duet all the time.” Here, Grandpa Jones sings baritone, gently underscoring Johnnie & Jack's harmonies. Unreleased at the time, it first appeared on Bear Family's now discontinued boxed set, 'Johnnie & Jack and the Tennessee Mountain Boys.'
A December '57 session reflected all that had happened in country music during the previous two years. Johnnie & Jack were keen to rush out a cover version of Carl Belew's Stop The World And Let Me Off. Belew had recorded it for 4-Star, and Patsy Cline also recorded it around this time. "We had the advantage over the [other versions] because we were on the Grand Ole Opry,” Johnnie told Eddie Stubbs. "The Jordanaires did it with us, and they were on the Opry too, and we'd sing it every Saturday night.” The Opry performances helped the song into the country charts, and it became the duo's last Top 10 country hit, peaking at #7 in early 1958. The fuller productions were also in evidence on Johnnie & Jack's version of a very early Mel Tillis song, Lonely Island Pearl, which reached #18 later in 1958.
The folk craze in the wake of Tom Dooley was the opportunity of a lifetime for RCA artist Jimmie Driftwood. Suddenly everyone wanted his songs, and the takers included Johnny Horton (Battle Of New Orleans), Eddy Arnold (Tennessee Stud), and Johnnie & Jack, who recorded Sailor Man. The backing musicians included Chet Atkins playing the guitar intro, and Grandpa Jones on banjo. "We used the banjo to make it sound like an old-time record,” Johnnie told Eddie Stubbs. Ray Walker of the Jordanaires sings baritone. Sailor Man didn't follow Battle Of New Orleans to the top of the charts, but reached #16 during twelve weeks on Billboard's listings.
After a session in August 1960, Johnnie & Jack parted company from RCA after an eventful eleven years. They moved on to Decca Records, and their revival of an old RCA recording, Slow Poison, gave them their last chart entry during the Fall of 1962. They were still recording and touring when their partnership ended tragically. On March 7, 1963, Johnnie and Jack drove from their homes in Madison to a memorial service for Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Cowboy Copas who'd been killed two days earlier. Jack was running late and turned too fast onto Due West Avenue. His car went off the road, and the impact fractured his skull, killing him.
Johnnie Wright scored a few solo hits and continued on the road with Kitty Wells. They toured almost continually until New Year's Eve 2000, when they played what was billed as their last showdate. In the Nashville of the new millennium, no one took much notice, but for those with longer memories, it was the end of an era. Kitty was the star all those years, of course, but on showdates someone would invariably call for Johnnie & Jack songs. They've been revived by other artists, and we see them now as perhaps the last truly great country duets, in touch with tradition, yet looking forward.
Adapted by Colin Escott from the work of Eddie Stubbs and Walt Trott, first published as the book accompanying Bear Family's 1992 boxed set, 'Johnnie & Jack and the Tennessee Mountain Boys.'
JOHNNIE & JACK & The Tennessee Mountain Boys (6-CD)
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