Guest post: Fred Stanley and the Skillet Lickers

Ann Arbor writer and musician Fred Reif recently brought to our attention his friendship with the late Fred Stanley, who, twenty years after cutting a record for Columbia with members of famed old-time string band the Skillet Lickers, settled in Detroit. Here is Mr. Reif’s biography of Fred Stanley. – Craig Maki

"The Cottage By The Sea" by Fred Stanley, 78rpm disk labelFred Stanley was one of many country performers who had a brief association with commercial record companies in the 1920s and ’30s. Columbia Records released one 78rpm record by him in 1930: “The Tie That Binds” backed with “The Cottage By the Sea” (Columbia 15559-D). Stanley was a contemporary of Riley Puckett, Clayton McMichen, and Bert Layne, among others.

A 1971 edition of the magazine JEMF Quarterly (John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly) reproduced a letter from Fred Stanley, who included a little biography of himself and his address in Detroit, Michigan. After reading Mr. Stanley’s letter, I wrote him a letter stating who I was, and that I would be interested in meeting him.

For the next five years, we wrote many letters back and forth. He sent me tapes of new songs he had written after picking up the guitar again (he put it down some 40 years earlier).

Stanley was born in Scott County, Tennessee, June 19, 1900. That’s about 100 miles south of Lexington, Kentucky, on U.S. Route 27. “We moved south of Rockwood, Tennessee, and farmed until I was fourteen years old,” he said. The family moved again to the town of Rockwood. At age 17, Stanley got a job with the painting gang for the Southern Railway Company, working from Danville, Kentucky, to Chattanooga, Tennessee. By 1920 his family had moved back to Scott County.

In 1921 the family moved to Stearns, Kentucky, and that is when he learned to play the guitar. Stanley recalled, “No one helped me learn the guitar. My brother showed me a chord card for the guitar, but I learned what I know, myself.”

Stanley first met fiddler Bert Layne of the Skillet Lickers in 1929. “He asked me if I ever played in front of an audience and, I said yes,” said Stanley. “Then he said ‘I am Bert Layne of the Skillet Lickers,’ and would I play with them at the Spring City (Tennessee) High School Auditorium?” Layne told him that guitarist Riley Puckett would not be there, but as it turned out, Puckett was at the show. “I was sure glad of that, because I always wanted to meet him,” he said. “That was the only time I ever played with Riley. The other members of the band included Bert Layne, Clayton McMichen, Lowe Stokes, and Clarence Higgins.”

Bert Layne (left) and Fred Stanley, 1970s

Bert Layne (left) and Fred Stanley, taken during their October 1975 reunion at Layne’s home in Covington, Kentucky. Source: Fred Reif

Soon after, Stanley wrote a letter to the Columbia Record Company, to ask for an audition. They told him to work his songs so as not to be less then two minutes and forty-five seconds, and not more than three minutes and fifteen seconds. Layne and McMichen of the Skillet Lickers told Stanley they would let him know when they were going to Atlanta to record. Stanley remembered, “I recorded two records (four sides). One [record] was released, but the other one was not.” Two songs, “The Boy In Blue” and “Railroad Lover,” were never released.

Stanley put down the guitar for many years before he moved north to Detroit in 1953. He worked with a painting contractor for six years. In 1959 he went into business for himself. When we began our correspondence in November 1971, Stanley was still painting. He couldn’t believe that it was some 41 years since he played with the Skillet Lickers. Still, one of his greatest memories was playing that one show with Riley Puckett, way back in 1929.

Stanley loved to pick his old Martin guitar. “I don’t try to keep up with this new stuff,” he said. “I just love to play the old tunes.”

“I play different from anybody,” he continued. “I don’t strum the guitar. I pick it. I play some like Riley Puckett.” In his many letters to me, he was always coming up with ideas for new songs.

Musicians of Saginaw, 1850s-1950s by Fred ReiftIn October 1975, Stanley went to Covington, Kentucky, to visit his old pal Bert Layne. Stanley recalled, “He invited some of the old bunch that had played with him throughout the years. We really had a ball!”

I have fond memories when reading his letters and listening to the small reel-to-reel tapes that he would send me of these old songs from another era. He wanted to get back into performing again, but it just never happened. I even heard from a promoter in England who was interested in bringing him over, but he was afraid to fly. He died July 1, 1994, at the age of 94 in Sterling Heights, Michigan.

 

Fred Reif © 2013

Fred Reif is a musician and writer from Saginaw, Michigan, who settled in Ann Arbor. During the 1970s he rediscovered a number of Michigan-based blues musicians and toured the world with several, including Lazy Lester, for whom Reif played washboard rhythm for more than 30 years. Reif writes for blues magazines with a focus on the music of Detroit. He has written an extensive history of music in Saginaw – “All of Me – A History of the Musicians of Saginaw, Michigan, 1850s–1950s” – Click here to learn more about it.

 

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