Rockabilly reunion at United Sound Systems

They’re still making history at the legendary United Sound Systems Recording Studios in Detroit. On July 27, 2014, United Sound Systems hosted a gathering of veteran musicians who made rockabilly records within its walls.

Johnny Powers, David Rowe Rohelier, Jimmy Kirkland
Detroit rockabilly legends at United Sound Systems: Johnny Powers (left), Jimmy Kirkland (right), and David Rowe Rohelier (center). Photo by Craig Maki

They’re still making history at the legendary United Sound Systems Recording Studios in Detroit. For more than 70 years, great entertainers and sound engineers worked together, cutting notable jazz, rock, soul, and country records. On July 27, 2014, United Sound Systems hosted a gathering of veteran musicians who cut the early rock style now called “rockabilly” within its walls during 1956-1959.

When their teen-aged interests in country-western had evolved to include rock’n’roll, the paths of Johnny Powers, Jimmy Kirkland, David Rowe Rohelier, and Dave Morgan crossed repeatedly as they worked to become professional musicians. Who among them could understand the performances they recorded as young men would bring them worldwide recognition, well into the 21st century? Bravo for leaping into the unknown, to see where the new music could lead. This time, it led them back to United Sound Systems.

Keith Cady, Jimmy Kirkland, Dave Morgan
Keith Cady played bass while Jimmy Kirkland (center) and Dave Morgan finger picked. Photo by Craig Maki

Roots of rock at United Sound Systems

Over the course of the afternoon, three one-hour tours ended in Studio A, the largest room in the building. Surrounded by displays of records and photos of Detroit-based country and rockabilly musicians, I spoke briefly about the early country-western records cut there. Artists such as Casey Clark and the Lazy Ranch Boys, Eddie Jackson, May Hawks with Chuck Hatfield and Boots Gilbert, and Jimmy Work recorded at USS. Work’s hit recordings for the Dot label included the original version of “Making Believe,” as well as the first rockabilly-styled number done at the studio, “That’s The Way It’s Gonna Be,” in 1956.

Loney Charles, Johnny Powers, Keith Cady, Jimmy Kirkland, David Rowe Rohelier
Johnny Powers sang the songs he cut at United Sound – “Rock Rock” and “Long Blond Hair” – with Loney Charles on drums, Keith Cady on bass, Jimmy Kirkland and David Rowe Rohelier (right). Photo by Craig Maki

In 1957, David Rowe Rohelier played lead guitar at USS on four numbers that Jack Scott led, including the Detroit hit “Baby She’s Gone,” issued by the ABC-Paramount label. Later that year, local real estate man George Braxton hired Johnny Powers and Jimmy Kirkland to share a session at USS and cut their own singles for his Fox label. (Click here to read more about it.) Guitarist Dave Morgan played alongside Kirkland for Johnny Powers, when Powers hosted weekend dances at Bill’s Barn. (Morgan and Kirkland later joined singer Hugh Friar and recorded with him as the Virginia Vagabonds.)

Rock! Rock!

After the first studio tour, a jam session heated up, lasting for the rest of the afternoon. Musician and writer Michael Hurtt, whose band the Haunted Hearts re-made Kirkland’s “I Wonder If You Wonder” and Hugh Friar’s “I Can’t Stay Mad At You,” sang those numbers with Kirkland and Morgan on guitar, and Keith Cady on bass. Yours truly sang Kirkland’s “Come On Baby,” plus “Cherokee Boogie” in tribute to Chief Redbird, who also recorded several times at USS. (Thanks to Redbird’s daughter Della and her family for attending.)

Jimmy Kirkland and David Rowe Rohelier
David Rowe Rohelier (right) sang a few tunes while picking with Jimmy Kirkland. Photo by Craig Maki

With Loney Charles on drums, and Rohelier relieving Morgan, Johnny Powers sang and talked about the songs he cut at USS. Then he ripped into a hot version of Jack Scott’s “Baby She’s Gone” with Rohelier picking out the same savage licks he played for the original record.

The producer of Detroit Channel 4 TV’s “Uniquely Detroit” segment plans to assemble a piece about the event for broadcast later this month. I’ll post a link when it’s available.

Thanks to all who attended. Thanks to Michael Hurtt, Andy Barron and Dave Beddingfield. Thank you to our special guests, their friends and families. And much praise to the fine people at United Sound Systems for organizing the tours that day.

Click here to learn more about weekend tours of the historic United Sound Systems Recording Studios. With enough show of support, MDOT may reconsider its plans to expand I-94, which currently puts USS at risk of demolition.

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