Wayside Records and early Detroit bluegrass part 2

"You're The One" by Frank Wakefield and Buster Turner (Wayside 150-B)

Wayside Records, an independent label owned by musician Wade Birchfield in Detroit, produced some of the first bluegrass records made in the city. In spring 1957 Birchfield ran an ad in Billboard magazine for two Wayside releases. Click here for part one of this story.

Birchfield issued a third record in late 1957, featuring Frank Wakefield and Buster Turner: “Leave Well Enough Alone” backed with “You’re The One” (Wayside 150). Before then, Wakefield had played mandolin with the Chain Mountain Boys, a band led by Marvin Cobb. He also briefly played with Jimmy Martin and his Sunny Mountain Boys, including Billy Gill, and Carl Vanover. At some point that year, Wakefield, Cobb, Martin, Gill, and Vanover cut some recordings at Bill Callihan’s basement apartment.

Underground legend

Bill Callihan played Hawaiian (lap) steel guitar with Detroit country-western groups during the 1940s and 1950s. Although a disabled man, Callihan’s love for music inspired him to haunt nightclubs and befriend Detroit musicians, many of whom jammed with Callihan at his home. During the 1950s, Callihan assembled a recording studio in his apartment, and he often cut acetate discs of visitors’ performances. “After I got acquainted with him, we’d go there, sometimes a couple times a week,” said Marvin Cobb. “We would record ’em, and of course, [the discs] would wear out real quick. We did it just to hear what we sounded like on record. We knew we were heading for a recording contract one day, and we were doing this more or less to keep from being tape shy.” [1]

Bill Callhan with lap steel, 1940s

Bill Callihan, 1940s.
Source: Craig Maki

“I wonder what ever happened to Bill Callihan? He was real old then,” said Wakefield. “You know, I never did really know his name, but I went over to his place I don’t know how many times. He came down to where we was playing, always invited us over. He had some old mandolin records I’d like to have got ahold of. Carl Vanover and Bill Gill knew where he lived. I remember it was down the stairs.” [2]

When the Chain Mountain Boys split, Wakefield went with Jimmy Martin for a spell, before moving downriver to Monroe, Michigan. There he met Buster Turner (guitar/mandolin) and Doyle “Dobbin” Niekirk (banjo), both from East Tennessee, around Tazewell. Turner, who usually played mandolin, switched to guitar after joining forces with Wakefield. Turner said they played at Charlie’s Bar in Detroit, but mostly at the You & I in Monroe. [3]

“I think he needed a mandolin player or something,” said Wakefield. “And instead of them needing a mandolin player, they didn’t know I needed a band! [laughs] So I got them in my band. Got ’em to do a record with me.”

Listen to: Frank Wakefield & Buster Turner – You’re The One

"Leave Well Enough Alone" by Frank Wakefield and Buster Turner (Wayside 150-A)

Wakefield said he wrote “You’re The One.” Apparently he collaborated on “Leave Well Enough Alone” with Carace Hutchins, banjo player with the Chain Mountain Boys. After teaching Turner and Niekirk their parts, Wakefield took them to Bill Callihan’s studio. “It was just the three of us,” said Turner. “And if you’ll notice, I played the bass strings and they put a little more bass on it than they would a regular guitar.”

“You know, that was a 1922 [Gibson] F5 I played on that,” said Wakefield. “That was the one that Pee Wee Lambert owned. It was on the old Stanley Brothers records [for the Rich-R-Tone label]. When I first joined the Stanley Brothers, when I walked on the stage, I was about asleep (we’d been traveling a long way), and they said, ‘Hot dang! That’s Pee Wee Lambert’s mandolin. Where did you get that?’ I gave an F12 for it. It was in Springfield, Ohio. The neck had been broke.” The neck on Wakefield’s mandolin was held together with an ingenious use of cutlery suggested by Carace Hutchins. “He’s the one that told me to put a spoon and a fork on one side and put screws in it, and it wouldn’t come loose. And it stayed glued till I sold it. At that time, I didn’t realize what a good mandolin it was. It was a real good mandolin. You can hear it on that record,” he said.

As session engineer, Callihan produced a clear, balanced sound complete with echo effects. The trio’s “Leave Well Enough Alone” was a haunting record that broke the mold of traditional bluegrass music with its percussive intro and finale, along with a vocal trio harmony during the refrain that reminded one of pop or jazz music. Within several years, the song was widely regarded as a signpost pointing to the progressive future of bluegrass music.

Listen to: Frank Wakefield & Buster Turner – Leave Well Enough Alone

Mr. Wakefield goes to Washington

Shortly after Birchfield issued the record, the trio headed for Bristol, Virginia. “We went down there for about four months, ’cause the Stanley Brothers just left there and moved to Florida, where they could do better,” said Wakefield. “We went down there and got a radio show [that] we did for about three or four months, and we starved out.”

Frank Wakefield, 2000

Frank Wakefield, promotional portrait, ca. 2000

“Me and Frank, and Dobbin went to WCYB in Bristol a couple of times and tried to get a start down there, but we never did make it,” said Turner. “We couldn’t make no money in them little old schools. Ralph and Carter [Stanley], they wore them schools out down there, playing for a quarter, you know. They’d charge a quarter [for] admission. We tried that for a while. We left out of there and that’s the last time I seen … Frank. Well, I dropped him and his wife Pat off in Dayton, Ohio, I believe. That’s the last time I seen him.”

“I moved to [Washington] D.C. in ’59,” said Wakefield. “I was there for a few months, and then Red [Allen] came down. Then he started coming around, and we started getting back together again. We got us a band together, started doing all those shows. We got to play Carnegie Hall. That was a real big thrill.”

Wakefield and Harley “Red” Allen worked together for many years in a band called The Kentuckians. Turner and Niekirk eventually settled back in Tennessee. “I started teaching music,” said Turner. “It’s been thirty years ago, I guess, and one of my students said, ‘Hey Buster, I found an album with two of your songs on it.’ And they had a little write-up in there about me and Frank, and Dobbin. They’d put them two songs on that album … ‘The Early Days Of Bluegrass’.” Rounder Records included both sides of Wakefield and Turner’s Wayside record in the second volume of “The Early Days Of Bluegrass,” released in 1976. [4] During the same year, Jerry Garcia produced a remake of “Leave Well Enough Alone,” working with Wakefield himself on the project. [5]

“You know what my goal in life is?” asked Wakefield. “To be able to play mandolin like me. [laughs]”

 

Notes

  1. Marvin Cobb interviewed by Keith Cady in 2002.
  2. Frank Wakefield interviewed by Keith Cady in 2001.
  3. Buster Turner interviewed by Keith Cady in 2001.
  4. Various Artists “Early Days Of Bluegrass, Vol. 2” Rounder Records (1014) 1976
  5. The Good Old Boys “Pistol Packin’ Mama” Round Records (Round RX-109) 1976

 

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