Interview: Guitarist Tommy Odom, part 1

Harold Thomason Harry Thomas Odom was born in Paris, Tennessee, November 8, 1923. A gifted guitarist, his take off (or lead) playing on records was comparable to the best western swing pickers on recordings. He learned his licks from local jazz guitarist Bob Mitchell, playing jazz standards and country throughout his career. Although he played guitar in Detroit for more than three decades (1940s through 1970s), younger generations recognized Odom for his vocal on a risqué novelty called “She Won’t Turn Over For Me,” which first appeared as a jukebox single on Fortune Records subsidiary Renown, performed by Floyd Compton’s Western Troubadours in 1951 (see discography next week). The lyrics of the song described either a disagreeable automobile or woman. The track was included on Fortune’s “The Original Skeets McDonald’s Tattooed Lady And Others” album (circa 1960). In 2001, when this interview was done at his apartment in Detroit, Odom had suffered a stroke and no longer played guitar. He died September 18, 2010. The following features excerpts from a lengthier conversation. [1]

 

Guitarist Tommy Odom, 1950s

Tommy Odom, 1950s. Source: Craig Maki, courtesy Tommy Odom

[Recording begins as Tommy Odom recalls working with Detroit bandleader Jack Luker at the West Fort Tavern, during the late 1940s.]

… Jack Luker, he played there, played rhythm. I played with so many different guys. I remember one night … I sat down on a stool – back then they didn’t make me stand up and I could play better sittin’ down – I pulled my hat down [over his eyes] and I’d been off for about two or three days. I thought, well, I’ll just rest my eyes for a couple of minutes, you know, and I fell forward on the dance floor, right on my head. [laughs] But Jackie … said, “What the hell’s the matter with you? You drunk? I’ll fire you!” Boy, he was mad. I took the rest of the night off. The next day he come over and said, “I need somebody to play the guitar. Are you gonna be sober tonight?” [laughs] …

How did you get interested in music?

My dad played banjo and fiddle. They tried to get him to play in Nashville, but he wouldn’t go. We had a big farm there. He come to Detroit, came up here to work. Then my mother moved up, and she brought me. I remember when she brang me up here. I lived over off of Jefferson, off some street. I went to Ammon [sp?] school, went to Gillis School, and then they found out – this was during the Depression, 1933 – they found out my dad had a hundred-and-sixty-acre farm in Tennessee, so they cut us off and give us forty dollars to go down to Tennessee.

He bought a Jersey cow for us kids. That was me, Johnny B., and Lewis, and Joe, and Jerry – no there wasn’t no Jerry then. He wasn’t born ’til ’41. … I cut timber with a cross saw down there ’til I got big enough and went to CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] camp. That’s when I was seventeen. Then my uncle, he told me I could get a job at White Castle® [hamburgers, in Detroit].

Where was the CCC camp?

Cookeville, Tennessee. … There’s another guy from Cookeville, he used to play on Eight Mile. Boy, he was a good guitar player. I can’t remember his name, and he played there before I met [jazz guitarist] Bob Mitchell. Boy, he really could play the guitar. Now, Eddie Jackson, when he got out of the navy [1947], I was playing at the West Fort Tavern when he come in. …

Who were some of your influences growing up, for playing guitar?

My uncle, he played. Both my uncles. Shelley, he gave it up. But Prince, he played in Detroit. He played steel guitar in the clubs. He could play take off, but he couldn’t play it like me. And the Delmore Brothers, they played in Nashville. … There was another guy in Nashville, and boy he had some licks. I used to try to copy them. But then when I got to Cookeville, I kept playing. And Chet Atkins was playing in Knoxville. …

I used to know a lot of musicians, but after I had that stroke, if you don’t mention their name, I can’t remember them. [Odom points to photo on his wall.] Like that girl, I can’t remember her name. I remember her brother’s name. They called him “Tarzan.” Ken Maynard, that cowboy in the movies, was their uncle. [2] I was living in East Detroit, and Tarzan come up here. He was wantin’ me to go to East Detroit ’cause she wanted to see me. But I wouldn’t go. I didn’t want to get married to nobody then. I’d get a gal for thirty days. … It was the law then, if you lived with someone for thirty days, you married her. But they changed that law. I’d move on out, then I’d move back in. [laughs] I know that woman mighta wanted to get married. … I liked her a lot. …

Listen to: Roy Hall and his Cohutta Mtn Boys, feat. Tommy Odom – Dirty Boogie

Jack Luker and crowd in Detroit bar, ca. 1950. Courtesy Faye Griner Phillips

Jack Luker (center) and crowd, possibly at the West Fort Tavern, ca. 1950. Clockwise from lower left: Tommy Odom, unknown man, Paul Perry, Flash Griner, Ted Faith, unknown man, Leslie York, unknown man, Arlee Barber (right), Frankie Brumbalough (left), unknown woman, unknown man. Source: Keith Cady, courtesy Faye Griner Phillips

I don’t have a picture of my grandmother. I didn’t like her anyway. And she didn’t like me. I liked my other grandma, ’cause … she’d give me anything – pies, cakes, just anything. And my other grandma, she’d serve meals to all the men first, and the kids would have to sit in the corner and wait. And all that was left for the kids was just bones. So I wouldn’t go up there. One day, they was up there, and my dad said to my mom, “Where are Thomason?” and she said, “He got off miles ago.” They lived off, down four miles of roads. She said, “When we got to Mammy’s he jumped off [the wagon] and went there. He ain’t going to eat like hogs and pigs.” [laughs]

I was up there one time, and my dad and grandpa were in the big barn down there. They had hay in there. My grandpa, my dad, and some uncles of mine were hittin’ that jug. Me and some cousins of mine were peepin’ through the logs and we saw them hit the jug and put it back in there, cover it up with hay. So they went back up the hill to the house, and we went in there and we hit the jug. I guess I was about ten years old, then. [laughs] It hit, too, boy. That moonshine … I know, I helped my dad make it down there. It starts off real strong at 160 proof, and he cut it down to a hundred. But people down there didn’t know what they was gettin’. You’d get it and five minutes later my throat was raw.

When did you come to Michigan, after the [CCC] camp?

When I come to Detroit, I started at Fort and Green. That’s where the White Castle was. [3] Then I went to Avery and Holden. Then I went to between Eight and Nine Mile on Woodward – that one’s still there. Then I went to that one, when they built it on Eight Mile and Gratiot. When they opened it up, the manager come over and let me go there. I remember there was Travis Goodwin, he was from Mississippi; Charlie something, he was from Alabama; one guy from Texas. …

Who were some of the musicians you first started playing with when you came up here? About what year was it when you came up here from Cookeville?

"Okee Doaks" by Roy Hall and his Cohutta Mountain Boys (Fortune 126)

I was seventeen, then [1941]. I went to the Hollywood [Inn] and the West Fort [Tavern], sat in and played with them. I had an ID and you didn’t have a picture on them. The police come into the West Fort one time and said, “How old are you?” I pulled [the ID card] out and showed it to them. I said, “By God, I’m 21.” “Oh.” The Police bought me a drink. [laughs] … I come to Detroit in the summer time, and my birthday was in November. …

Before I went into the army, there was modern [swing] bands in the Hollywood [Inn], you know. There was modern bands at the West Fort, too. All the country bands – even Bob Mitchell – they was all playin’ on Eight Mile, but it was all modern music. They’d play some country songs. …

I was nineteen when I went into the army. I stayed out for a year. I’d go to Tennessee. I’d send a letter down there and visit my mother, then come back. Then, finally they said, “No more jumpin’ around.” They got wise. They said, “Show up at Gratiot and Nine Mile Road.” So I stayed out for a year. I stayed out long enough, probably to save my life. Because everybody was killing. Guys was comin’ back from Guadalcanal and everything … legs shot off and arms. I know my buddy, Boots Hampton, he got back from Guadalcanal, and he’d been shot up and everything. He was older. …

How did you first meet Roy Hall?

I think he come into the West Fort and got a job when I was playing. I was playing guitar there and he come into the bar, and the owner gave him a job playing piano. From there, he went out to the Caravan, and all over. I know he was playing at Port Huron. I went up to Port Huron with him and played up there some. …

Listen to: Roy Hall and his Cohutta Mtn Boys, feat. Tommy Odom – Okee Doaks

Last time I seen him, he was playing down in Nashville. He come up here on the weekend and he was driving that guy’s car … He had a lot of records …

Webb Pierce?

Not Webb Pierce. Wait a minute! That’s who it was. Yeah, he was driving his car. … I know he had “Webb Pierce” on the side of it. We was playing on Fort Street – me and Christine. [4] He wouldn’t have a drink in there. He said, “Come on with me.” We went across the street and had … I guess half a dozen shots. He wouldn’t have but one shot. He said, “I gotta drive.” He owed me [fifty dollars], so he said, “Here’s thirty dollars.” I was so broke I said, “I’ll take the thirty dollars – just forget the twenty.” I never seen anymore of him. He went back down to Nashville. And when I heard any more about him, I heard he died. [5]

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Click here to read part two, which includes a Tommy Odom discography; and Odom reflects on the many Detroit nightclubs he played, and musicians he knew, including Bob Mitchell, and Frankie Brumbalough.

 

Notes

  1. Tommy Odom interviewed by Keith Cady and Craig Maki in 2001.
  2. “Tarzan” also was the name of Ken Maynard’s horse.
  3. Now the site of legendary Motz’s Burgers.
  4. Christine [surname unknown] played a cocktail drum.
  5. Roy Hall died in 1984. Hall’s story is included in the forthcoming book “Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies.”

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