A sometime member of the Roy Hall, Eddie Jackson, and Chief Redbird bands in Detroit, Hal Clark made a name for himself – literally and historically – as Hal Southern, author of the song “I Dreamed Of A Hillbilly Heaven.” According to Jackson, “Hal was a bass player, singer, and lead guitarist. He taught me quite a bit about the proper ways of playing – putting chords together so that I could play any kind of music with any band.”
Francis H. Clark was born around 1919 and raised in Columbus, Indiana. From 1942 until the end of World War II, he worked in the Coast Guard. Around 1946 Clark made his way to Detroit, where he joined Eddie Sosby and the Radio Rangers. The Rangers moved to Chicago for a spell before joining the staff at KFAB radio Lincoln, Nebraska. By autumn 1947, Clark left the Radio Rangers for Florida. Eventually, he (as well as bassist Bob Norton) returned to Detroit. Clark played music in C&W nightclubs such as Ted’s 10-Hi on East Jefferson and the West Fort Tavern on West Fort Street. Clark wrote songs and organized his own groups, specializing in cowboy, western swing, and pop music.
Clark’s first recording was for the Arden label of Detroit, with a song called “Baby Doll” (Arden 85, b/w “Goodbye To You” 1948), credited to him and Norton. In 1949 Clark played take off guitar and sang his composition “A New Set of Blues” on the flipside of “I’m Willing To Forget,” Eddie Jackson’s first record (Fortune 134). The next year Clark joined Roy Hall’s Cohutta Mountain Boys at a session in Nashville, Tennessee, for Bullet Records. The band cut three of Clark’s songs. Frankie Brumbalough sang “Old Folks Jamboree” (Bullet 704, b/w “Mule Boogie”) while Clark sang his own “Ain’t You Afraid” and “Turn My Picture To The Wall” (Bullet 712). Clark also played lead guitar at the Bullet session. In 1950 Fortune Records released his last recording in Detroit, “I Don’t Mean A Thing To You” b/w “Lonely Heart” (with the West-O-Crats, Fortune 146).
Clark moved to Southern California in 1951, after meeting and receiving encouragement from Merle Travis, who appeared at Detroit’s Roosevelt Lounge early that year. (Travis also inspired Skeets McDonald to make the same move from Detroit at about the same time.) Once settled on the West Coast, Clark changed his surname to Southern and found work on stage with the likes of Roy Rogers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Cliffie Stone, Lefty Frizzell, and the Maddox Brothers and Rose. Southern joined a cowboy trio called the Frontiersmen around 1952. Hi “Highpockets” Busse, an established western entertainer who played accordion, led the act, and Wayne West played bass. Southern played lead guitar, continued writing songs, and handled the group’s publicity.
One of the first acts to record for W.O. Fleener’s Sage and Sand Records of Hollywood, California, in 1953, the Frontiersmen worked at KFI and KXLA radio in Los Angeles, and KLAC-TV and CBS network broadcasts with cowboy singers Tex Ritter, and Ken Murray. In 1954, western star Eddie Dean recorded Southern’s “I Dreamed Of A Hillbilly Heaven,” with backing by the Frontiersmen. Legend has it Southern had a dream similar to the one described in the song, although singer Danny Richards claimed Southern had begun writing it before he left Detroit. Lyrics included a spoken passage that paid tribute to country music stars (living and dead) by name. Eddie Dean’s version of “Hillbilly Heaven” (Sage and Sand 180) proved to be Sage and Sand’s biggest seller, and an enduring classic. In later remakes of the song, singers such as Anita Carter, Tex Ritter, and Dolly Parton updated the names of the stars in hillbilly heaven.
I dreamed I was there in hillbilly heaven
Oh what a beautiful sight
And I met all the stars in hillbilly heaven
Oh what a star studded night
Rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson began her recording career in 1955 with Southern’s “Lovin’ Country Style,” which appeared on the flipside of her top ten hit for Decca, “You Can’t Have My Love” (Decca 29140).
Southern’s promotions made it into Hank Snow’s Rainbow Ranch Fan Club newsletters in 1956, providing a glimpse of the Frontiersmen’s activities. In a feature called “Party Line News” Southern wrote that Tex Williams had recorded one of his songs, and he noted the Frontiersmen appeared on KTLA-TV’s “Western Varieties” show with host Doye O’Dell and singer Joanie Hall. Hall cut a few singles and an album with the trio.
Through the following decades, Southern recorded as a solo artist for Sage Records and other labels, including his own. He acted bit parts in television productions such as “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke,” and “The Virginian.” Southern was elected vice president of the Country and Western Academy of California for 1970-71. He continued operating a public relations and management company, and made the rounds of country music business events and award shows. In 1975, Southern produced country gospel programs for television in Southern California. Meanwhile, the Frontiersmen backed Eddie Dean steadily, as well as other cowboy and western personalities on stage.
Southern retired from entertaining in the mid-1990s after diabetes stole away his sight. In July 1998, from a hospital bed in Vista, California, he entered hillbilly heaven one star studded night.
- Eddie Jackson interviewed by Craig Maki in 1995, 1997.
- Floy Case. “The Radio Rangers” Mountain Broadcast and Prairie Recorder (December 1946. New Series, No. 12) 16.
- “American Folk Tunes” The Billboard (Oct. 4, 1947. Vol. 59, No. 39) 124.
- Eddie Jackson recorded a rock’n’roll version of “Baby Doll” during the late 1950s (Shelby 0297). Clark also remade “Baby Doll” at Eddie Jackson’s 1949 session for Fortune Records. It appeared on the compact disc “Detroit In The 50’s – Vol. 3,” a European production released in 2000.
- Danny Richards interviewed by Craig Maki in 2008.