Happy 100th birthday, Les York of the York Brothers

York Brothers with Curley King

    Les York (top), George York (left), and Curly King, ca. 1947

In 1939 and 1940, Detroit residents witnessed a surprising rise in popularity of a hillbilly novelty record. Les York reportedly wrote his song “Hamtramck Mama,” based on an early blues pattern, while working the assembly line in a local automobile plant. He and his older brother George (born in 1910) performed as the York Brothers in local cafes and taverns that booked entertainment for crowds of fellow Appalachians who had come north looking for jobs. Born in Louisa, Kentucky, on August 23, 1917, Leslie York took up lead guitar, Hawaiian lap steel, and mandolin, and teamed up with George at WPAY radio in Portsmouth, Ohio, before they both headed to the Motor City.

The success of “Hamtramck Mama” also shook up the local music and entertainment industry. Never mind that it was country-western, a genre that typically achieved marginal success compared to big band jazz at the time — the 78 rpm disks sold like hotcakes at a church breakfast, eventually reaching juke boxes across the Midwest and Deep South. It represented the first time a piece of music written, recorded and manufactured in Detroit by an independent label, by people living in Detroit, sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Listen to: York Brothers – Hamtramck Mama

Hamtramck Mama by the York Brothers

          Label variant of early Universal pressing

Les and George quit their automotive jobs and played nightclubs and vaudeville theaters. They mixed comedy routines in their programs, with Les sometimes playing a slapstick routine as a backwards country hick he named Charles Muggleduck. The record’s notoriety drove local politicians to denounce it and threaten legal action, and the Detroit Free Press didn’t hesitate to reproduce samples of the song’s “hot” lyrics in its pages. [1]

After completing a short-lived deal with major label Decca, the York Brothers signed to one of the first — if not the first — independently-owned record companies in Detroit: Mellow Records. Within a couple of years, Les wrote and recorded dozens of songs that covered popular country-western styles, such as cowboy songs, heart songs, and blues. The addition of a bassist who could slap the strings provided many of the York Brothers’ early 1940s sides with a raucous rockabilly sound that other musicians capitalized on during the rock’n’roll craze of the mid-1950s.

Les York photographed while working at Helen's 20th Century in Detroit, ca. 1960

    Les York photographed at Helen’s 20th Century
    in Detroit, ca. 1960

Les and George left Detroit to join the U.S. Navy in 1944. After the end of World War II, they joined WSM radio’s “Grand Ole Opry” in Nashville, Tennessee, and signed contracts with the Bullet and later, King, record companies. In 1949, their fans in Detroit welcomed them back fulltime. Besides records, George and Les continued making music on stage, radio, and television in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana until 1953, when they moved to the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Texas.

For several more years, through the mid-1960s, Les returned to Detroit each summer to entertain with local musicians Danny Richards and his Gold Star Cowboys. “Hamtramck Mama” remained a longtime favorite of Detroit audiences. In the end, Les, a prolific writer and imaginative musician, recorded several dozen original songs during his career — with and without George, who died in 1974. Les York passed away in 1984.

Click here to view a Detroit discography of the York Brothers’ earliest records. For a more detailed overview of Les and George York’s career, see the book “Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies” by Craig Maki with Keith Cady.

Listen to: York Brothers (feat. Les York) – River of Tears (live)

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Notes

  1. “‘Hamtramck Mama’ Getting the Deaf Ear in Hamtramck” Detroit Free Press (Saturday, April 10, 1940. Vol. 109, No. 352) 1.

 

2 Comments to "Happy 100th birthday, Les York of the York Brothers"

  • David Rowe
    August 23, 2017 at 10:27 am #

    I used to see the York Brothers at Casey Clark’s jamboree on Mack Avenue in the mid-50s. I always remembered Les’s Epiphone 3 pickup guitar with all the switchs.

    • August 23, 2017 at 12:37 pm #

      Les York’s Epiphone sure is impressive in the old photos! The York Brothers appeared regularly at Clark’s shows for a while — at least, they had an association that led Clark to include the York Brothers’ picture in an early Lazy Ranch Boys souvenir book.

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