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 spectacular rise in popularity of a hillbilly novelty record. Les York reportedly wrote his song “Hamtramck Mama,” based on an old blues, 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 BrothersLes 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.

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