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We love his style: Johnny Powers

The story of how singer Johnny Powers cut his 1957 signature rockabilly tune “Long Blond Hair” in Detroit.

After hosting weekend dances at Bill’s Barn in Rochester Hills Avon Township (now Shelby Township), Michigan, for some months, playing a mix of country-western, rock’n’roll, pop, and square dance music, Johnny Powers attracted the attention of George Braxton, owner of the Detroit-based Fox Record Company. Braxton, whose main business was real estate, noticed Elvis Presley dominated the playlists of Detroit radio disk jockeys (those who played rock’n’roll), and Presley’s appearances at Detroit’s Fox Theatre proved enormously popular among local teen-agers – kids who also spent their allowances and part-time job earnings on records. Braxton was looking to cash in on the rock’n’roll phenomenon by finding the Elvis of Detroit, and he convinced young Powers and Jimmy Kirkland, Powers’ guitarist that evening, they both were going to be stars.

Early country rock in Detroit

At the time, Powers and Kirkland had fair reason to believe in Braxton’s prophecy. Their friend Jack Scott (who had led the band at Bill’s Barn a few years earlier) cut a session at United Sound Systems in Detroit earlier that year. Scott’s “Baby She’s Gone” attracted local radio airplay after gaining a nationwide release on the ABC-Paramount label. Inspired by Scott, Powers took members of Jimmy William’s country band, including guitarist Russ Williams, to Jack and Dorothy Brown’s Fortune Records studio in Detroit to cut a rock’n’roll record. Powers paid a fee to record there, and Fortune pressed a 45rpm single, which got distributed as far as Powers was able to carry them; he sold most of them at his own shows. [1]

USS label, Rock RockFor this new opportunity, Powers and Kirkland brought in Clark Locker (a.k.a. Johnny Clark, drums), Bill Tipton (bass), and Stan Getz (lead guitar). Getz played bass for Jack Scott, and would only play for Powers if he let him pick lead guitar. Powers and Kirkland split the session, which probably occurred around the fall of 1957, each recording two numbers at United Sound. Kirkland sang, and played his own lead guitar, on “I Wonder If You Wonder” and “Come On Baby,” issued on Braxton’s Teen Life label (named after the Detroit-based newspaper), as well as Fox. [2]

Kind of strange

Powers arrived at the session with “Rock Rock,” a dance song he wrote with Russ Williams, and a tune that he thought would grace the B-side of his record: “I Love Your Style.” While “Rock Rock” sounded like a typical uptempo rockabilly song, the other had been worked up in a minor key. “I told Stan, ‘Man, this song we got in E minor, it sounds kind of strange.’ [Stan Getz said] ‘Aw, just do it. It sounds cool!’ Stan was the kind of guy that always wanted to reach out, and do things different,” said Powers. [3]

Listen to: Long Blond Hair – Johnny Powers

Long Blond Hair, by Johnny Powers (Fox GB-916, 1957)Issued on Fox [4] as “Long Blond Hair, Red Rose Lips,” the performance is now regarded as a top-shelf rockabilly record, in part because of the guitarist’s point that it was “different.” Getz throttled his guitar, emphasizing the rhythm with a slick combination of flat pick attack and finger picking. Tipton pummeled the bass strings while Locker socked the drums with a relentless snap. And, a decade before the emergence of Detroit garage rock bands, Powers shouted the blues with the kind of ferocity and spirit later attributed to Bob Seger, the Unrelated Segments, and the MC5. With this record, Powers introduced his own style.

George Braxton’s distribution network seemed much the same as Jack Brown’s at Fortune Records, and Johnny Powers’ early masterpiece faded into obscurity a few months after its release. But he continued rocking and recording in Detroit. In 1959 he made a single for his idol Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. [5] Then he signed with Berry Gordy’s Motown Records in Detroit, eventually going into production for a variety of companies, before getting caught up in the European rock’n’roll revival of the 1980s, and rediscovering “Long Blond Hair” for himself.

“When I first went over [to Europe],” said Powers, “I started doing it in E [major]. And [the bandleader] says, ‘No, no, no, no, no. It’s in E minor.’ I says, ‘I never cut this thing in E minor.’ Then it dawned on me: Yes I did!”

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Notes

  1. “Honey Let’s Go (To A Rock And Roll Show)” b/w “Your Love” Johnny Powers And His Rockets (Fortune 199, 1957) Johnny Powers played rhythm guitar in Jimmy Williams’ band, the Drifters, when he made the Fortune record.
  2. For Kirkland’s story, see Craig Maki’s liner notes to the Jimmy Kirkland compact disc “Cool Daddy” on Rollercoaster Records (RCCD 3054, 2007).
  3. Johnny Powers interviewed by Craig Maki and Keith Cady in 2001.
  4. “Rock Rock” b/w “Long Blond Hair, Red Rose Lips” Johnny Powers With The Band Of Stan Getz & Tom Cats (Fox GB-916/917)
  5. “With Your Love, With Your Kiss” b/w “Be Mine, All Mine” Johnny Powers (Sun 327, 1959)

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