‘Hamtramck Mama’ celebrates diamond anniversary

Seventy-five years ago, two young men from Kentucky cut a juke box record for a Detroit vending company. Its surprising success sparked a country music recording industry in Detroit, only interrupted by the men’s departure at the height of World War II.

Universal 105, York Bros. "Hamtramck Mama"During the early 1930s, George and Leslie York sang and played guitars together in a group with two more of their brothers and an older sister for church and social events around their home town of Louisa, Kentucky. The York Brothers first entertained as a duo at WPAY radio Portsmouth, Ohio, around 1936. By 1938 they had moved to Detroit to work in its factories. Leslie had developed a songwriting habit that wouldn’t quit, and “… between cars on the assembly line, Leslie wrote his impressions of the Polish section of Hamtramck, Michigan, and called it ‘Hamtramck Mama’.” [1]

She’s truckin’ in the daytime, shimmy’n at night
She’s a Hamtramck Mama and she shakes it right

The York Brothers cut the song for their very first record [2] at Universal Recording Studios, located on East Jefferson Avenue, for the Detroit-based Marquette Music Company, which distributed records in juke boxes across Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. Soon after its release, Leslie York was let go from his job. He returned to Ohio, where he played WPAY radio and local taverns with Portsmouth musician Virg Frazie. [3]

Two months later [Leslie] turned on the radio to [NBC Network broadcaster] Lowell Thomas’ program and heard how the district attorney in Detroit had banned “Hamtramck Mama” from the city’s juke boxes because he considered it defamatory to Hamtramck. [Leslie] was scared to go back until George sent for him to play some of the biggest night spots in Detroit. The publicity had “made” the record. [4]

Mellow1105“Hamtramck Mama” reportedly sold 300,000 copies in Detroit, appearing on three different local record labels: Universal (at least two different pressings), Hot Wax, and Mellow. The York Brothers’ popularity led to lucrative bookings (mainly in Detroit, due to wartime travel restrictions) and more recordings issued by Detroit juke box vendors. In 1941 they signed a contract with major label Decca, which issued three records. After “Hamtramck Mama” hit, a few other C&W groups in Detroit made records for the Universal and Mellow labels, but the Yorks supplied Mellow Records with scores of titles (most penned by Leslie) before they joined the U.S. Navy in March 1944. [5]

After their return to civilian life, the York Brothers moved to WSM radio in Nashville, Tennessee, and re-made “Hamtramck Mama” in 1947 for Bullet Records. When they moved back to Detroit in 1949, Fortune Records re-issued the original 1939 recording, which again proved popular among Detroiters, and stayed in print for a few more decades.

Listen to: The York Brothers – Hamtramck Mama (1939)

As we toast the 75th anniversary of “Hamtramck Mama,” don’t forget to check out the survey of the York Brothers’ entire musical career in “Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies.” Cheers!

 

Notes

  1. Source: Unidentified 1947 news clipping from scrapbook of country music historian John Bell.
  2. The York Brothers cut “Going Home” for the flip side of the record.
  3. Correspondence between Craig Maki and John Bell, 2014.
  4. Bell’s 1947 news clipping (see note 1).
  5. When he enlisted, Leslie York’s weekly pay as an entertainer at Detroit’s Jefferson Inn nightclub was $115. At the time, servicemen earned about one-third that amount per month.

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