One of Southeast Michigan’s best-known country artists of the 20th century, Jimmy Williams promoted stars of Nashville on radio and in person during the 1960s. Click here to view Part 1.
In 1956 Jimmy Williams cut his second record, again in his parents’ house. His “Rainbow Heart” resembled Hank Williams’ hit “Your Cheatin’ Heart” with the line, “Your rainbow heart will tell on you.” The flipside of the single, “Teardrops And Memories,” had a faster beat, driven by Johnny Powers on rhythm guitar. The band’s performance sounded like electrified bluegrass with twin lead guitars. Williams paid King Records of Cincinnati, Ohio, to press a few hundred 45rpm copies to sell at the band’s shows, which he moved to a new location by the end of the year.
Near the southwest corner of Fifteen Mile Road and Mound, Williams modified a large house and dubbed it Colonial Hall. “There was a big old house there, and Jimmy built an addition on the back,” said Powers. “There was a dance floor in there.”
Detroit radio host Bob Maxwell and partners introduced WBRB radio in May 1957, at 1430 on the AM dial. The station broadcast from within the venerable Colonial Hotel (now demolished) in Mount Clemens. Williams signed on for a daily program, just him and his guitar. “I got a radio show at WBRB Mount Clemens, … from five to six in the morning,” said Williams. “I used to get up in the morning at 3:30, go to Mount Clemens from New Baltimore, go to the radio station, and I would record a half-hour show — part of the show I had, ’cause it was from five until 6:30. I’d be on the air from five to six ‘live.’ After the six o’clock news, they would put my tape on, and I would get in my car and go to the factory to go to work.
“When they [moved] the radio station down on Metropolitan Parkway and Gratiot (they built a new building down there) … they got an FM station. … It’s on the air yet: 102.7. … It was called ‘The B-R-B Ranch.’ I was on that in the afternoon and various hours.”
In April 1957, Billboard magazine reviewed Jack Scott’s first record, a rockabilly ditty called, “Baby She’s Gone.” Powers said it inspired him to write “Honey Let’s Go (To A Rock and Roll Show)” and “Your Love,” which he and Russ Williams Jr., along with Marvin Maynard on bass, recorded at Fortune Records, on Third Street in Detroit.
“Jimmy actually got mad at Russ and I, ’cause I started my own band, and we went to Fortune Records,” said Powers. “I was playing with Jimmy at the time, and I went to Fortune and paid a hundred bucks to get that session cut. Jimmy didn’t quite like that. [Laughs] But we all got over that, and Russ started playing with me.” Powers left the Drifters, and Russ Jr. split his time playing with his brother at Colonial Hall and with Powers, who took up residence at Bill’s Barn.
When the economic recession of 1957–58 forced some local musicians to take day jobs or leave town, Williams’ work at WBRB expanded to engineering broadcasts. “As I went along, the guy that was running the controls taught me how to run the controls, and I ended up gettin’ the job. [Laughs] Fifty cents an hour,” he said. When Maxwell and company sold WBRB in 1959, Williams continued working as a disk jockey. His dances at Colonial Hall ended that year, although Williams forged ahead with the band. Williams’ father (Russ Sr.) and his friend Ralph Maybee retired from the group.
New era in sound
After five years of marriage, Williams and his wife divorced. He continued gigging around the Blue Water region (at $200 a night), and started broadcasting live performances and country music records at WDOG in Marine City. By 1965, he quit his factory job in Rochester and worked full-time at WDOG, doing everything from cutting commercials to cutting the lawn.
In 1960, musician and engineer Stan Getz Jr. (who had played bass for Jack Scott and some lead guitar for Johnny Powers), Larry Lick, and Howard Walker built a sound studio near New Haven, calling it Sound Incorporated. While the company recorded any style of music, Walker produced many country-western sessions, including several by Williams.
Williams recorded and issued a few more singles for his “Drifter” label, including “Can You Face Yourself,” a Howard Walker composition that featured David Rohelier on guitar and Joe “Whitey” Cutcher on steel. The song resembled the music of Buck Owens, who was riding high with a string of hits during the early 1960s.
During the early 1960s, Williams began a second era of live performances as he joined Rocky Corry and the Rhythm Rustlers at Dutch’s Outpost in Port Huron six nights a week. Owner Marge Mathieson, a very hands-on personality, worked at the club day and night. After the untimely death of her husband in January 1963, Mathieson travelled to Nashville, Tennessee, to visit Tootsie Bess, of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, seeking advice on hiring country music stars to play at her club in Port Huron. Bess put her in touch with Hubert Long’s talent agency, and Mathieson’s stage featured top-shelf talent steadily for the next twenty years.
“We used to have shows there, and bring in ‘Grand Ole Opry’ stars,” said Williams. “We played Tuesday through Sunday, with a matinee on Sunday. … When they had a ‘Grand Ole Opry’ star, it was usually on a Friday night. That bar, Dutch’s, would seat four hundred people.” Williams kept up the square dances, and often called for seven or eight sets of dancers on Saturday nights. With Sarnia, Ontario, just across the St. Clair River, they attracted a lot of people from Canada, he said.
Williams eventually took over the band. He dated singer Joanie Vale for a few years before they married and she left the stage. Together, the couple led tours to Nashville. “We’d get a group of people and we’d rent a bus, get a hotel in Nashville and we’d take people down there,” said Williams. “I’d sing and carry on, on the bus. We used to have a good time.”
Whitey Cutcher, who played steel in Williams’ band from the 1960s through the 1980s, became Williams’ brother-in-law when he married Joanie Vale’s sister. Also, Cutcher was songwriter Harlan Howard’s half brother. “They had the same mother,” said Williams. When Williams first met Howard, he worked at Mueller Brass, a factory in Port Huron and one of the city’s largest employers, located down the street from Dutch’s Outpost. In 1955 Howard left Michigan for Los Angeles, California, where he began a legendary career, writing hits such as, “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down,” “Heartaches By The Number,” and “Busted.”
Williams worked in radio by day, and hosted touring acts at Dutch’s Outpost by night. One year, the club sponsored a float in the Port Huron Blue Water Parade, which featured Williams standing and waving at the crowds with superstar Webb Pierce. “That night, Webb Pierce had a little too much to drink,” said Williams, “and I was asked to go on stage and sing some of his songs.
“Ernest Tubb was a big hit at Dutch’s,” said Williams. “We had him there seven or eight times … and he packed the place every time he came. … His band, the Troubadours, they’d do part of the show. They’d announce him and he’d come off of the bus and come out and do his thing.” Paging through a scrapbook, Williams recalled a list of performers he hosted at Dutch’s, including Carl Smith, Norma Jean, Loretta Lynn, Kenny Roberts, Sleepy LaBeef, Swanee Caldwell, Tex Ritter, Billy Mize, Jimmy Dickens, Ferlin Husky, Hank Williams Jr., Johnny Dollar, Hank Snow, Jerry Byrd, Onie Wheeler, and Joe Pain.
Next week! Jimmy Williams: Blue Water Drifter — Part 3
- Now WPZR-FM, with an “urban gospel” music format.
- “Reviews of New C&W Records” Billboard (April 29, 1957. Vol. 69, No. 18) 59. The ABC-Paramount label issued Jack Scott’s first record.
- Although he didn’t play on Johnny Powers’ next record, Russ Williams, Jr. helped him write “Rock Rock,” which the local Fox label coupled with “Long Blond Hair” on a single in 1958.
- “Sorrows In My Heart” was the flipside of “Can You Face Yourself.” Other artists on Jimmy Williams’ Drifter label included Barry Raye, Joy Jean, Leon Seiter, and Whitey Cutcher.