Testimonials

Style 1

The following piece is presented at the request of Mr. Faulkner’s family. Our condolences to all Mr. Faulkner’s relatives and friends.

Nolan Faulkner, 2021
Top of page: Candid snapshot of Mr. Faulkner with the Miller Brothers band. Above: A recent portrait of Mr. Faulkner

Lee Nolan Faulkner, 89, of Fancy Farm, KY (formerly of the Detroit area) passed away peacefully on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. He was born June 18, 1932 in Wolfe County, KY to John and Grace (Napier) Faulkner. Lee loved to tell jokes, watch U-K Wildcats Basketball, and talk with his friends. He was a proud Mason, and had a lifelong passion for playing the mandolin, and bluegrass music.

Lee was internationally respected in the bluegrass music world for his artistry on the mandolin, and for his songwriting ability. He initially played with groups such as the Powell County Boys, and the Kentucky Troubadours in his home state, before moving to Brighton, Michigan, in the 1950s. There, he played and recorded with Red Ellis, who was a radio host on WHRV Ann Arbor, for the Pathway and Starday record labels. He served as a mentor to many musically-inclined University of Michigan students who played in his band, the Big Sandy Boys, including Doug Green (“Riders in the Sky”), and Andy Stein (“Commander Cody”). In the early 1970s, Lee began to play with Kentucky transplants Earl, James, and Charlie Miller – the Miller Brothers – in the Detroit area, and he maintained an especially close personal and musical friendship with James Miller throughout the rest of their lives. The band recorded for Jessup Records of Jackson, Michigan, and Old Homestead Records of Brighton.

Lee’s mandolin style, strongly influenced by Bill Monroe and the blues, was highlighted on the 1976 album “The Legendary Kentucky Mandolin of Nolan Faulkner,” which consisted almost entirely of original songs and arrangements. He was in great demand locally for studio recording, and he appeared on albums by Lee Allen, Wade Mainer, Bob Smallwood, Larry Sparks, Joe Meadows, Clyde Moody, Charlie Moore, John Hunley, and others. He continued to play locally throughout the 1980s and 1990s with John Hunley and his Lost Kentuckians at their home base of Jack Daniel’s Lounge in Lincoln Park, and he traveled and recorded with Roy McGinnis and the Sunnysiders, Robert White and the Candy Mountain Boys, and James Miller. His musical career was featured in an article published in the September 2021 edition of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine.

Lee was preceded in death by five children: Shawn, Timmy, and Jimmy Faulkner, Penny Faulkner Rose, and Gail (Carl) Faulkner Rogers. He is survived by three children: Wanda Faulkner Underwood, Brent (Robin) Faulkner, and Tony (Laura) Faulkner; 9 grandchildren, 11 great grandchildren, and four great-great grandchildren. 

Per Lee’s wishes, no services were held.

The family requests that any memorial contributions be made to “KCTCS Foundation,” at 300 North Main Street, Versailles, KY 40383, directed to the “Hazard Community and Technical College – Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music” in Lee’s honor.

The Miller Brothers with Nolan Faulkner holding his mandolin

It was supposed to be a blog post. It grew into a book.

It’s been nine years since Detroit Country Music was published. Its first few chapters make it clear that country music in Detroit goes back almost a hundred years, arriving in 1939 with the release of a 78 rpm record titled “Hamtramck Mama” via the Detroit-based Universal label.

Book cover of "Tomorrow Brings Memories - Detroit's First Underground Record Company" by Craig Maki

Since 2013, I’ve gathered more stories about the men and women involved with the label, as well as the Hot Wax, and Mellow labels. Combined, they represent an impressive body of work for the time (World War II) and the place (Detroit, Michigan). I churned what began as a series of blog posts (unpublished) into a new 130-page pocketbook.

Here’s the back cover blurb:

In 1939, a new record from a shadowy storefront on Detroit’s east side starts showing up in juke boxes all over town. It quickly becomes a smash hit, sending men scrambling to cash in, by creating Detroit’s first home-grown record company Here’s the untold story of an unlikely pair of tattooed hustlers: an ex-con, and a shell-shocked World War I vet, plus: juke boxes, the mafia, Hamtramck mamas, Wayne County grifters, the first all-female western swing act on records, the first rockabilly trio — all playing roles in sensational music originally pressed on 78 rpm discs that document the dawn of Detroit’s recording industry.

The contents include:

  • stories,
  • quotes from interviews,
  • illustrations,
  • photos,
  • record label scans, and
  • discographies.

Purchase online at lulu.com, The Book Beat, and Barnes & Noble.

78 records surrounding the book "Tomorrow Brings Memories" by Craig Maki

After a lifetime of playing music in Detroit, Johnny Clem’s recollections form a winding trail through Detroit nightclubs, bars and lounges whose past existence is now only evidenced by photos and stories, such as the time he worked with bandleader Danny Richards at a barn dance staged in the legendary Graystone Ballroom during the 1950s, or when he recorded for Joe Von Battle in the back of Joe’s Record Shop on Hastings Street.

From Alabama to Detroit

Tiny Elkmont, Alabama, near the southern border of Tennessee, sits almost the same distance from Nashville to the north, and Birmingham to the south. The Delmore Brothers, renowned for making hillbilly blues and boogie woogie popular during the 1930s, were born there, as was Johnny Clem on September 7, 1929, the year that the Delmores started their act. A few years later, during the Great Depression, Clem’s father took a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority, and moved the family to east Tennessee.

Clem’s friendly personality and ability to learn multiple musical instruments led him to sit in with many groups at a moment’s notice. In 1946, Clem picked electric guitar for the Golden West Cowgirls (Gladys and Ann) during early morning radio broadcasts at WROL Knoxville. He joined the U.S. Navy the following year, and after completing two years of service, moved to Detroit to work in Chrysler’s facilities on the east side of town. (Clem remained active in the navy for another six years.)

Johnny Clem and band at Detroit's 3-JJJs in 1956
1956 at the 3-JJJs bar on West Vernor. From left: Johnny Clem, Tommy Odom, Joe Chadwick, and Leon Chessire. Source: Craig Maki, courtesy Johnny Clem

While living in a dense area of the city populated by thousands of people who had arrived from the South for work, Clem found loads of opportunities to play music in local bars. Jeff Durham, a guitarist, singer, and comedian, led a band at a nightclub on Jefferson Avenue and St. Jean, where Clem played his first Detroit gig, strumming a Hawaiian steel guitar in the group. “Jeff would do comedy, and put makeup on his face,” remembered Clem. “Then he shined a black light on himself, to make his face glow.” [1] Durham also had a reputation for finger style (or Travis) picking, as he had grown up in Muhlenburg, Kentucky, and had been acquainted with guitarists Mose Rager, Ike Everly, and Merle Travis. (Watch for an upcoming story about Jeff Durham and his brother Bob.)

An eager participant in country-western jamborees held at bars such as Ted’s Ten-Hi [you can see him in the group photo at the front of the chapter on Eddie Jackson in the “Detroit Country Music” book], Clem also taught himself how to play piano. “I never learned to read music, but I still got pretty good,” he said. “[Piano] became my main instrument for many years.”

According to Clem, his early gigs in Detroit included:

ca. 1950 — Al Dorman’s Bar, with Pioneer Playboys: Johnny, Chuck, Bill, and George Upton (14800 Mack, near Alter)
1950 — Caravan Gardens, with Eddie Jackson (Woodrow Wilson and Davison)
1951 — Torch Bar, with trio (East Jefferson Avenue, across from Hudson Motor Car facilities)
1951 — [Unknown club], with Waldo Walker (East Jefferson Avenue and Kitchener)
1952-53 — Torch Bar, with Swannee Caldwell (bass) and Red Peterson (guitar) [2]

A tattle on Von Battle

In 1953, Clem worked briefly with African American record shop owner Joe Von Battle. In the back of Joe’s Record Shop at 3530 Hastings, Von Battle built a recording studio. Clem said he often visited a restaurant across the street from the shop, and he got to know Von Battle by running into him there. “After our gigs, after the clubs closed, the boys and I’d go to the Checker Bar-B-Q near Hastings Street,” said Clem. “I don’t remember how we met, but [Von Battle] wanted me to cut a country version of a song called, ‘Another Soldier Gone.’ Eventually, we visited the studio he had in the back of his shop and cut it. I sang and played piano on it. I don’t think it was released, but Joe gave me a dub of it on a record.”

Johnny and the Astronauts, 1960
Johnny and the Astronauts at a Detroit nightclub (possibly Joe’s Bar), ca. 1960. From left: Johnny Clem, Dennie Rollin, Sonny Croft, Jim Hoelbrook, and Louie Schaeky. Source: Craig Maki, courtesy Johnny Clem

From around 1948, Von Battle had been recording local blues, jazz, and gospel performers. He had just cut “Another Soldier Gone” by a vocal group called the Violinaires, issued on the Drummond label of Detroit, and he wanted to explore the idea of making a “crossover” record of it with Clem. At the time, record companies often directed their pop and country-western artists to remake popular rhythm and blues songs, and vice versa. While the artists and instrumental style of these records differed, the songs themselves often appeared on multiple charts.

Clem’s version of “Another Soldier Gone” wasn’t released commercially. But the memory of this small episode in Clem’s career provides us with one of the earliest accounts of black and white musicians collaborating in Detroit.

Astronaut of Detroit rock

When it came to music, Clem approached it with an open heart and mind, and his reputation kept him working. More bookings included the following with local bandleaders:

mid-1950s — Yale Bar with Luke Kelley (Warren at the John C. Lodge Freeway)
1955 — Dixie Belle, with Jack Luker (Vernor and McKinstry)
1956 — 3-JJJs, with Les York (Vernor and Clark)

Not surprisingly, Clem was an early adopter of rock’n’roll, which was popular in the city from the mid-1950s through the 1970s. One of his first rocking gigs was at the Shamrock Bar on Third Street and Selden, a rough area in 1957-59, but each musician (Sonny Croft – drums, vocals; Leon Chessire – lead guitar) earned $20 a night, which amounted to big bucks in those days.

After Casey Clark ceased production of the Lazy Ranch Boys Barn Dance in the union hall at 12101 Mack Avenue in 1957, Clem, vocalist Randy Sea and six other musicians worked dances there on weekends.

1978 ad for Jimmy Kelley and the Kaguns at Rose Lounge
Ad clipping for Jimmy Kelley and the Kaguns, featuring Johnny Clem (far left), from 1978. Jimmy Kelley is at far right.

Clem’s next move was to play piano with vocalist Carl Parker. They had a steady gig at the Scenic Inn (Fort and Miami) with a man named Ted on saxophone around 1960, reportedly earning $300 per week. Then he joined Randy Sea, with Norm Sands on drums, and Leon Chessire on guitar at the Rose Bar (Vernor and Morell). Clem’s own band, Johnny and the Astronauts, worked Joe’s Bar at Jefferson and Chene, from around 1960-64, and for a while included guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Johnson, who later worked in Nashville with the Louvin Brothers, Leroy VanDyke, Jimmy Dickens and others, and spent four years on the “Grand Ole Opry” (Johnson died in 2014).

Clem also worked at Joe’s Bar with guitarist Bill Merritt, who played in town for many years. From there, Clem gigged at Ted’s 10-Hi on Jefferson and Fairview with Deano DelRay, and then to the O’Mack Bar (Mack and St. Jean) with Waldo Walker and Whitey Franklin. From about 1964-68, Clem worked the 509 Club downtown with Franklin and his brother Jimmy.

With Clem on piano, Carl Parker cut some recordings for which they didn’t find a commercial outlet. The recording presented with this story was made during a gig by guitarist Al Allen and the Sounds at Jerry’s Show Bar in 1960, and features Parker, with Clem on piano, sitting in with the band.

Listen to: Carl Parker with Johnny Clem (piano) and Al Allen (guitar)

Johnny Clem at his keyboard in 1999
Johnny Clem at his keyboard in 1999

Some country recordings were put on tape with Jay Preston for the Clix label, based in Troy, Michigan, which seem to be lost, as well as a session at Fortune Records in Detroit. Although Johnny Clem didn’t release records of his own, he made a contribution to the Detroit scene, like many others who shared space on local bandstands (for another example, see Happy Moore’s story). Through the decades, Clem worked with vocalist Danny Richards at the Red Robin on Jefferson Avenue and at the Hazel Park Eagles with Richards and guitarist Chuck Oakes. In 1978 Clem had a steady gig at Rose Lounge on West Vernor with bandleader Jimmy Kelley (Luke Kelley’s son). He played at the Clinton Gables Hotel on the Clinton River near downtown Mount Clemens, with Tony Gee and the Continentals during the 1970s, as well as Castaways near 23 Mile and VanDyke with Jay Preston and guitarist Dave Morgan.

During the 1990s, Clem moved just north of Palm Beach, Florida, and entertained crowds of retirees “as much as I could stand it,” he said with a chuckle. As of this writing, Clem is back in Michigan to be near family, and retired from entertaining.

Update: Johnny Clem passed away June 3, 2018.

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Notes

  1. John Clem interviewed by Craig Maki in January 2016.
  2. Many nightclub owners booked extended contracts with bands for weeks of steady entertainment.

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.

Part 3: Mr. Juke Box

Originally from Middle Tennessee, Ralph Davis and his brothers played music in Detroit, Michigan, during the early-to-mid 1950s. In 1957, they cut a record for Jack Brown’s Hi-Q label. Then he headed south. Click here to view part two.

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Ralph DavisSoon after moving to Nashville, Tennessee, from Michigan during the winter of 1958, Ralph Davis and his brothers Ken and Guy rustled up some gigs playing music in the city’s active night club scene.

I had to get a job when I went down there – something to do besides the music. I got a job in a print shop. Then I started writing songs, and hanging around Tootsie’s. I met a lot of people there. … Next thing I knew, I had [a song on] an Ernest Tubb record.

Ralph Davis worked with bandleader “Big Jeff” (Grover Franklin Bess) and his Radio Playboys for a while. At that time, Big Jeff and his wife, Tootsie, owned the famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway, a hangout for musicians who worked the “Opry” stage at the Ryman Auditorium, which was located near a back door to the club.

“Tommy Hill was a great influence on me,” said Davis. “He liked some of the songs I’d written, so I made a demo at Starday [Recording Studio]. They started getting some of them recorded [by] Archie Campbell, Roy Drusky … Then Tommy asked me once if I’d fill in for him at the “Opry.” He was a rhythm [guitar] player. I said, ‘Sure, man!’ I got to know all the acts down there. When Tommy decided he didn’t want to play [on a particular night], I’d go take his place.

“One day he told me, ‘I’m gonna quit. Do you want the job?’ I said, ‘You bet I do.’ This was, like, 1960. I talked with the manager and he said, ‘Yeah, as far as I’m concerned.’ It wasn’t really called a ‘staff band’ at that time. It [depended on] the artists who wanted to use you. That went on until about ’68. And I worked the road some with Roy Drusky, Dale Wood and Jean Shepard. But then one day they called [the musicians] in and told us they were making a staff band, and they were just gonna keep so many of us to play. Me and my brother [Guy] were included in it. Hal Love, Billy Linneman, Junior Husky, Pete Drake, [Jimmy] ‘Spider’ Wilson … there were ten of us that was kept there. We stayed there for the next forty years,” he said.[1]

Waycross County by Ralph Davis on Nashville Records

His window on the music scene

In 1962, Davis got in on the ground floor of the Window Music Publishing Company, operated by steel guitarist Pete Drake, Starday Records producer Tommy Hill, and others. In 1963, Starday Records subsidiary Nashville issued a single (no. 5142) by Davis himself. In “Waycross County” Davis sang a story about a heartbroken Southern man living far away from home, which seemed a popular theme at the time as Bobby Bare scored a big hit with “Detroit City” that year. Also that year, Ernest Tubb scored a Top 20 hit with Davis’s “Mr. Juke Box.” “That was the biggest that I ever wrote,” said Davis. Another notable song was “The Fool’s Side of Town,” which Archie Campbell cut in 1962. “We had a lot of success with Window,” he said.

Glen Davis, another brother, played drums for George Jones for several years during the 1960s. He joined the Jones Boys road band and played on recording sessions.

Davis produced the first recordings by the Bobby Harden Trio. “Bobby Harden and I wrote ‘Poor Boy’ [1965]. I produced Bobby on Starday for a while,” said Davis. “He had some single records out after his sisters retired [in 1967, replaced by Onie Wheeler’s daughter Karen, and Shirley Michaels]. We wrote ‘Too Cold At Home’ and we cut the demo at my studio. My son [Danny] cut it before Mark Chesnutt did [in 1990], but we never did get it out.” Davis also produced solo work by Karen Wheeler.

His son Danny, also known as “Double D,” first appeared on the “Opry” in 1968 when he was five years old, playing drums with Billy Grammer. He started playing bass regularly on the program around 1981, and worked jobs with the likes of Porter Wagoner, Merle Haggard, Skeeter Davis, George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Ray Price.[2]

1999 marked the end of an era at the “Grand Ole Opry,” when management asked most of the regular musicians to retire. After forty years, Davis left the stage of the “Opry” for the last time. “I got to work with some great people,” he said. “It was my desire, when I was young, growing up on the little farm over here. We had a battery-operated radio and I’d listen to the ‘Opry’ every Saturday night.” A decade after leaving the Opry, Ralph Davis passed away in Waynesboro, Tennessee, on October 29, 2010.

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Notes

  1. Ralph Davis interviewed by Keith Cady in 2003.
  2. Russ Corey. “Davis not looking to be big star, just a musician.” http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20080110/NEWS/801100303?Title=Davis-not-looking-to-be-big-star-just-a-musician (Retrieved 2011)
    Anita Miller. “Wayne County Music History: Danny Davis.” http://validitymag.com/2014/04/wayne-county-music-history-danny-davis/ (Retrieved 2017)

Part 2: Titus Brothers and Fortune Records

Originally from Middle Tennessee, Ralph Davis and his brothers played music in Detroit, Michigan, during the early-to-mid 1950s. In 1957, they cut a record for Jack Brown’s Hi-Q label. As winter 1958 progressed, Davis made a decision that changed the direction of his life. Click here to view part one.

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As Ralph Davis was stationed in Missouri with the army, playing western swing with a ten-piece band nightly, his brother Kenny stayed active in Detroit, playing fiddle with Bud Titus and his brothers Bob and Bill on the west side of town.

Originally from Central Lake (northeast of Traverse City), Michigan, the Titus brothers performed as the Rocky Mountaineers at community parties, theaters, and benefits, during the late 1940s. Barely grown into their teens, they appeared as a main act on the “Boardman Valley Barn Dance” broadcast by WTCM radio in Traverse City, in 1949. A year later, the brothers moved to Garden City (west of Detroit), Michigan.[1]

Titus Brothers
Bud Titus and the Titus Brothers, 1957. From left: Bob Titus (bass), Kenny Davis (fiddle), Bud Titus (vocal, rhythm guitar), Bill Titus (electric guitar), Gene Johnson (steel guitar).[6] Source: Keith Cady, courtesy Bob Titus
During 1956, the Titus Brothers appeared on TV and radio in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Possibly at the invitation of Sage & Sand Records producer Pat Nelson, who worked with many Detroit-based artists, in spring 1957 Bud took two self-penned songs to Cincinnati, Ohio, and cut them with guitarist Bobby Bobo. A musician on WLW radio’s “Midwestern Hayride,” Bobo played some slick Chet Atkins-styled finger picking at the session, which added to the record’s appeal (it’s still one of the more popular reissues from the Sage & Sand catalog). The songs “Tomorrow” and “Hocus Pocus” appeared on the Sage label (Sage 244) in June. “Tomorrow” attracted spins from regional disk jockeys, but all three Titus Brothers kept their day jobs, and promoted the single mostly within the Detroit area.[2]

Western Rhythm Boys

A few weeks after the release of Bud Titus’ Sage record, Ralph Davis returned to Michigan and started a new group he called the Western Rhythm Boys. “There was me, Guy [Davis], and Kenny [Davis], and Chuck Burak playing steel,” said Davis.[3] “He had a steel, and he put pedals on it with coat hangers. He worked on it all the time. [laughs] … A guy by the name of Buddy played the lead guitar … We had a little drummer named Dean Finney. He lived in Ypsilanti. … We played a little place up in Ann Arbor. I can’t remember the name of it. A nice lady owned it, and we played there on Sunday nights.

“I was working out at Shelden Hall [on Plymouth Road in Livonia, located where a shopping center now stands, near Shelden Park]. Tracey White used to own that little hall. … It was a barn-looking place. Real authentic-looking. … We leased that place from him. It was packed on the weekends! We stayed there for two or three years, I guess. I used to live down the street, not too far from there,” he said.[4]

Besides working Shelden Hall on weekends, Davis and the group volunteered to entertain the ill and infirm. A January 1958 feature on teen-aged singer Joannie King in Teen Life magazine mentioned she sang with the Ralph Davis band at Detroit area hospitals.[5]

A Hi-Q disk

Searching For You by Ralph Davis and the Western Rhythm BoysDuring late 1957, Davis cut two original songs for Jack Brown of Fortune Records in Detroit. “There was a guy up there at Shelden Hall, just hanging around. He came up to me and asked if I’d like to make a record. I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Well, I got some pull over there at Fortune Records.’ So he told them. I went over there and talked with them, sang with a guitar. And they decided, if I’d get the right songs … you know,” he said.

“They wanted to do it in that little studio [on Third Street], and I didn’t want to. I said I’d rather do it in a better place. … I cut that at a little studio on Cass [Avenue], upstairs. It was a pretty good sound, for those days.” Issued on Brown’s Hi-Q label, “Searching For You” backed with “Undecided Heart” featured bass, drums, steel guitar, fiddle, and Davis’ vocal and rhythm guitar. “That’s all I played back then,” he said. “That’s all I’ve ever played, mountain guitar. I play a little banjo and mandolin, but not enough to amount to anything. … My brother Kenny, he’s a great musician. A great mandolin player. … He played fiddle fluently, and he plays a great guitar. He bought his first guitar in Detroit. He had an old electric Gibson, but he bought a Fender Stratocaster, and he still plays it.”

The record benefitted from the quality production Davis sought at the other studio. Unlike many sessions cut at the Fortune Records building, a sound engineer at the studio on Cass mixed the instruments with a pleasant balance. “Undecided Heart” came off like a Hank Thompson performance with a rock’n’roll backbeat. “It wasn’t no hit, but we got a lot of work out of it,” he said. “I took it down to Nashville with me.”

Davis continued: “One night we was working this club in Ann Arbor, I’ll never forget it. I had an old ’53 Buick, and it had those fluid [electric] windows in it, and somebody rolled one down behind, and we couldn’t get it up. Boy, I was freezing! On the way home, Marty [Robbins] was singing on the radio. We had tuned in WSM (I always listened). I told Kenny, ‘Do you know what I’m gonna do?’ And he said, ‘Nah.’ I said, ‘I’m going back to Nashville.’ He said, ‘What for?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna get on the Opry.’ And he just laughed, ‘Oh yeah?’ I said, ‘Yeah. In two weeks, I’m leaving.’ And so I did. I went out there and gave them my notice, and you know what? He left before I did!”

Next week! Ralph Davis, Part Three — Mr. Juke Box

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Notes

  1. Bob Titus shared with Keith Cady a variety of newspaper clippings from a family scrapbook that documented the Rocky Mountaineers and Titus Brothers bands.
  2. “Titus Boys’ Recording Tops Local ‘Country’ Hit Parade” Automatic Transmission News. (July, 1957) 4. Published by Ford Motor Company, out of the Livonia Transmission Plant.
  3. Ralph Davis interviewed by Keith Cady in 2003.
  4. Davis said the owner of Shelden Hall was a man named Tracey White, but not the Detroit guitarist of the same name.
  5. Effie Burrus. “Personable Joannie King Visits Teen Life Editor” Teen Life. (Jan. 6, 1958. Vol. 3, No. 1) 5. King recorded a single for Sand Records (a Sage and Sand label) at the end of 1957 (“OK Doll” b/w “History” Sand no. 258). Davis and his band did not play on it.
  6. According to Keith Cady, Gene Johnson was a member of Roy Acuff’s Smokey Mountain Boys during the 1930s, and a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He played steel guitar through the early 2000s.

Style 2

The following piece is presented at the request of Mr. Faulkner’s family. Our condolences to all Mr. Faulkner’s relatives and friends.

Nolan Faulkner, 2021
Top of page: Candid snapshot of Mr. Faulkner with the Miller Brothers band. Above: A recent portrait of Mr. Faulkner

Lee Nolan Faulkner, 89, of Fancy Farm, KY (formerly of the Detroit area) passed away peacefully on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. He was born June 18, 1932 in Wolfe County, KY to John and Grace (Napier) Faulkner. Lee loved to tell jokes, watch U-K Wildcats Basketball, and talk with his friends. He was a proud Mason, and had a lifelong passion for playing the mandolin, and bluegrass music.

Lee was internationally respected in the bluegrass music world for his artistry on the mandolin, and for his songwriting ability. He initially played with groups such as the Powell County Boys, and the Kentucky Troubadours in his home state, before moving to Brighton, Michigan, in the 1950s. There, he played and recorded with Red Ellis, who was a radio host on WHRV Ann Arbor, for the Pathway and Starday record labels. He served as a mentor to many musically-inclined University of Michigan students who played in his band, the Big Sandy Boys, including Doug Green (“Riders in the Sky”), and Andy Stein (“Commander Cody”). In the early 1970s, Lee began to play with Kentucky transplants Earl, James, and Charlie Miller – the Miller Brothers – in the Detroit area, and he maintained an especially close personal and musical friendship with James Miller throughout the rest of their lives. The band recorded for Jessup Records of Jackson, Michigan, and Old Homestead Records of Brighton.

Lee’s mandolin style, strongly influenced by Bill Monroe and the blues, was highlighted on the 1976 album “The Legendary Kentucky Mandolin of Nolan Faulkner,” which consisted almost entirely of original songs and arrangements. He was in great demand locally for studio recording, and he appeared on albums by Lee Allen, Wade Mainer, Bob Smallwood, Larry Sparks, Joe Meadows, Clyde Moody, Charlie Moore, John Hunley, and others. He continued to play locally throughout the 1980s and 1990s with John Hunley and his Lost Kentuckians at their home base of Jack Daniel’s Lounge in Lincoln Park, and he traveled and recorded with Roy McGinnis and the Sunnysiders, Robert White and the Candy Mountain Boys, and James Miller. His musical career was featured in an article published in the September 2021 edition of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine.

Lee was preceded in death by five children: Shawn, Timmy, and Jimmy Faulkner, Penny Faulkner Rose, and Gail (Carl) Faulkner Rogers. He is survived by three children: Wanda Faulkner Underwood, Brent (Robin) Faulkner, and Tony (Laura) Faulkner; 9 grandchildren, 11 great grandchildren, and four great-great grandchildren. 

Per Lee’s wishes, no services were held.

The family requests that any memorial contributions be made to “KCTCS Foundation,” at 300 North Main Street, Versailles, KY 40383, directed to the “Hazard Community and Technical College – Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music” in Lee’s honor.

The Miller Brothers with Nolan Faulkner holding his mandolin

It was supposed to be a blog post. It grew into a book.

It’s been nine years since Detroit Country Music was published. Its first few chapters make it clear that country music in Detroit goes back almost a hundred years, arriving in 1939 with the release of a 78 rpm record titled “Hamtramck Mama” via the Detroit-based Universal label.

Book cover of "Tomorrow Brings Memories - Detroit's First Underground Record Company" by Craig Maki

Since 2013, I’ve gathered more stories about the men and women involved with the label, as well as the Hot Wax, and Mellow labels. Combined, they represent an impressive body of work for the time (World War II) and the place (Detroit, Michigan). I churned what began as a series of blog posts (unpublished) into a new 130-page pocketbook.

Here’s the back cover blurb:

In 1939, a new record from a shadowy storefront on Detroit’s east side starts showing up in juke boxes all over town. It quickly becomes a smash hit, sending men scrambling to cash in, by creating Detroit’s first home-grown record company Here’s the untold story of an unlikely pair of tattooed hustlers: an ex-con, and a shell-shocked World War I vet, plus: juke boxes, the mafia, Hamtramck mamas, Wayne County grifters, the first all-female western swing act on records, the first rockabilly trio — all playing roles in sensational music originally pressed on 78 rpm discs that document the dawn of Detroit’s recording industry.

The contents include:

  • stories,
  • quotes from interviews,
  • illustrations,
  • photos,
  • record label scans, and
  • discographies.

Purchase online at lulu.com, The Book Beat, and Barnes & Noble.

78 records surrounding the book "Tomorrow Brings Memories" by Craig Maki

After a lifetime of playing music in Detroit, Johnny Clem’s recollections form a winding trail through Detroit nightclubs, bars and lounges whose past existence is now only evidenced by photos and stories, such as the time he worked with bandleader Danny Richards at a barn dance staged in the legendary Graystone Ballroom during the 1950s, or when he recorded for Joe Von Battle in the back of Joe’s Record Shop on Hastings Street.

From Alabama to Detroit

Tiny Elkmont, Alabama, near the southern border of Tennessee, sits almost the same distance from Nashville to the north, and Birmingham to the south. The Delmore Brothers, renowned for making hillbilly blues and boogie woogie popular during the 1930s, were born there, as was Johnny Clem on September 7, 1929, the year that the Delmores started their act. A few years later, during the Great Depression, Clem’s father took a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority, and moved the family to east Tennessee.

Clem’s friendly personality and ability to learn multiple musical instruments led him to sit in with many groups at a moment’s notice. In 1946, Clem picked electric guitar for the Golden West Cowgirls (Gladys and Ann) during early morning radio broadcasts at WROL Knoxville. He joined the U.S. Navy the following year, and after completing two years of service, moved to Detroit to work in Chrysler’s facilities on the east side of town. (Clem remained active in the navy for another six years.)

Johnny Clem and band at Detroit's 3-JJJs in 1956
1956 at the 3-JJJs bar on West Vernor. From left: Johnny Clem, Tommy Odom, Joe Chadwick, and Leon Chessire. Source: Craig Maki, courtesy Johnny Clem

While living in a dense area of the city populated by thousands of people who had arrived from the South for work, Clem found loads of opportunities to play music in local bars. Jeff Durham, a guitarist, singer, and comedian, led a band at a nightclub on Jefferson Avenue and St. Jean, where Clem played his first Detroit gig, strumming a Hawaiian steel guitar in the group. “Jeff would do comedy, and put makeup on his face,” remembered Clem. “Then he shined a black light on himself, to make his face glow.” [1] Durham also had a reputation for finger style (or Travis) picking, as he had grown up in Muhlenburg, Kentucky, and had been acquainted with guitarists Mose Rager, Ike Everly, and Merle Travis. (Watch for an upcoming story about Jeff Durham and his brother Bob.)

An eager participant in country-western jamborees held at bars such as Ted’s Ten-Hi [you can see him in the group photo at the front of the chapter on Eddie Jackson in the “Detroit Country Music” book], Clem also taught himself how to play piano. “I never learned to read music, but I still got pretty good,” he said. “[Piano] became my main instrument for many years.”

According to Clem, his early gigs in Detroit included:

ca. 1950 — Al Dorman’s Bar, with Pioneer Playboys: Johnny, Chuck, Bill, and George Upton (14800 Mack, near Alter)
1950 — Caravan Gardens, with Eddie Jackson (Woodrow Wilson and Davison)
1951 — Torch Bar, with trio (East Jefferson Avenue, across from Hudson Motor Car facilities)
1951 — [Unknown club], with Waldo Walker (East Jefferson Avenue and Kitchener)
1952-53 — Torch Bar, with Swannee Caldwell (bass) and Red Peterson (guitar) [2]

A tattle on Von Battle

In 1953, Clem worked briefly with African American record shop owner Joe Von Battle. In the back of Joe’s Record Shop at 3530 Hastings, Von Battle built a recording studio. Clem said he often visited a restaurant across the street from the shop, and he got to know Von Battle by running into him there. “After our gigs, after the clubs closed, the boys and I’d go to the Checker Bar-B-Q near Hastings Street,” said Clem. “I don’t remember how we met, but [Von Battle] wanted me to cut a country version of a song called, ‘Another Soldier Gone.’ Eventually, we visited the studio he had in the back of his shop and cut it. I sang and played piano on it. I don’t think it was released, but Joe gave me a dub of it on a record.”

Johnny and the Astronauts, 1960
Johnny and the Astronauts at a Detroit nightclub (possibly Joe’s Bar), ca. 1960. From left: Johnny Clem, Dennie Rollin, Sonny Croft, Jim Hoelbrook, and Louie Schaeky. Source: Craig Maki, courtesy Johnny Clem

From around 1948, Von Battle had been recording local blues, jazz, and gospel performers. He had just cut “Another Soldier Gone” by a vocal group called the Violinaires, issued on the Drummond label of Detroit, and he wanted to explore the idea of making a “crossover” record of it with Clem. At the time, record companies often directed their pop and country-western artists to remake popular rhythm and blues songs, and vice versa. While the artists and instrumental style of these records differed, the songs themselves often appeared on multiple charts.

Clem’s version of “Another Soldier Gone” wasn’t released commercially. But the memory of this small episode in Clem’s career provides us with one of the earliest accounts of black and white musicians collaborating in Detroit.

Astronaut of Detroit rock

When it came to music, Clem approached it with an open heart and mind, and his reputation kept him working. More bookings included the following with local bandleaders:

mid-1950s — Yale Bar with Luke Kelley (Warren at the John C. Lodge Freeway)
1955 — Dixie Belle, with Jack Luker (Vernor and McKinstry)
1956 — 3-JJJs, with Les York (Vernor and Clark)

Not surprisingly, Clem was an early adopter of rock’n’roll, which was popular in the city from the mid-1950s through the 1970s. One of his first rocking gigs was at the Shamrock Bar on Third Street and Selden, a rough area in 1957-59, but each musician (Sonny Croft – drums, vocals; Leon Chessire – lead guitar) earned $20 a night, which amounted to big bucks in those days.

After Casey Clark ceased production of the Lazy Ranch Boys Barn Dance in the union hall at 12101 Mack Avenue in 1957, Clem, vocalist Randy Sea and six other musicians worked dances there on weekends.

1978 ad for Jimmy Kelley and the Kaguns at Rose Lounge
Ad clipping for Jimmy Kelley and the Kaguns, featuring Johnny Clem (far left), from 1978. Jimmy Kelley is at far right.

Clem’s next move was to play piano with vocalist Carl Parker. They had a steady gig at the Scenic Inn (Fort and Miami) with a man named Ted on saxophone around 1960, reportedly earning $300 per week. Then he joined Randy Sea, with Norm Sands on drums, and Leon Chessire on guitar at the Rose Bar (Vernor and Morell). Clem’s own band, Johnny and the Astronauts, worked Joe’s Bar at Jefferson and Chene, from around 1960-64, and for a while included guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Johnson, who later worked in Nashville with the Louvin Brothers, Leroy VanDyke, Jimmy Dickens and others, and spent four years on the “Grand Ole Opry” (Johnson died in 2014).

Clem also worked at Joe’s Bar with guitarist Bill Merritt, who played in town for many years. From there, Clem gigged at Ted’s 10-Hi on Jefferson and Fairview with Deano DelRay, and then to the O’Mack Bar (Mack and St. Jean) with Waldo Walker and Whitey Franklin. From about 1964-68, Clem worked the 509 Club downtown with Franklin and his brother Jimmy.

With Clem on piano, Carl Parker cut some recordings for which they didn’t find a commercial outlet. The recording presented with this story was made during a gig by guitarist Al Allen and the Sounds at Jerry’s Show Bar in 1960, and features Parker, with Clem on piano, sitting in with the band.

Listen to: Carl Parker with Johnny Clem (piano) and Al Allen (guitar)

Johnny Clem at his keyboard in 1999
Johnny Clem at his keyboard in 1999

Some country recordings were put on tape with Jay Preston for the Clix label, based in Troy, Michigan, which seem to be lost, as well as a session at Fortune Records in Detroit. Although Johnny Clem didn’t release records of his own, he made a contribution to the Detroit scene, like many others who shared space on local bandstands (for another example, see Happy Moore’s story). Through the decades, Clem worked with vocalist Danny Richards at the Red Robin on Jefferson Avenue and at the Hazel Park Eagles with Richards and guitarist Chuck Oakes. In 1978 Clem had a steady gig at Rose Lounge on West Vernor with bandleader Jimmy Kelley (Luke Kelley’s son). He played at the Clinton Gables Hotel on the Clinton River near downtown Mount Clemens, with Tony Gee and the Continentals during the 1970s, as well as Castaways near 23 Mile and VanDyke with Jay Preston and guitarist Dave Morgan.

During the 1990s, Clem moved just north of Palm Beach, Florida, and entertained crowds of retirees “as much as I could stand it,” he said with a chuckle. As of this writing, Clem is back in Michigan to be near family, and retired from entertaining.

Update: Johnny Clem passed away June 3, 2018.

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Notes

  1. John Clem interviewed by Craig Maki in January 2016.
  2. Many nightclub owners booked extended contracts with bands for weeks of steady entertainment.

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)

****************************************************

Notes

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

Part 3: Mr. Juke Box

Originally from Middle Tennessee, Ralph Davis and his brothers played music in Detroit, Michigan, during the early-to-mid 1950s. In 1957, they cut a record for Jack Brown’s Hi-Q label. Then he headed south. Click here to view part two.

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Ralph DavisSoon after moving to Nashville, Tennessee, from Michigan during the winter of 1958, Ralph Davis and his brothers Ken and Guy rustled up some gigs playing music in the city’s active night club scene.

I had to get a job when I went down there – something to do besides the music. I got a job in a print shop. Then I started writing songs, and hanging around Tootsie’s. I met a lot of people there. … Next thing I knew, I had [a song on] an Ernest Tubb record.

Ralph Davis worked with bandleader “Big Jeff” (Grover Franklin Bess) and his Radio Playboys for a while. At that time, Big Jeff and his wife, Tootsie, owned the famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway, a hangout for musicians who worked the “Opry” stage at the Ryman Auditorium, which was located near a back door to the club.

“Tommy Hill was a great influence on me,” said Davis. “He liked some of the songs I’d written, so I made a demo at Starday [Recording Studio]. They started getting some of them recorded [by] Archie Campbell, Roy Drusky … Then Tommy asked me once if I’d fill in for him at the “Opry.” He was a rhythm [guitar] player. I said, ‘Sure, man!’ I got to know all the acts down there. When Tommy decided he didn’t want to play [on a particular night], I’d go take his place.

“One day he told me, ‘I’m gonna quit. Do you want the job?’ I said, ‘You bet I do.’ This was, like, 1960. I talked with the manager and he said, ‘Yeah, as far as I’m concerned.’ It wasn’t really called a ‘staff band’ at that time. It [depended on] the artists who wanted to use you. That went on until about ’68. And I worked the road some with Roy Drusky, Dale Wood and Jean Shepard. But then one day they called [the musicians] in and told us they were making a staff band, and they were just gonna keep so many of us to play. Me and my brother [Guy] were included in it. Hal Love, Billy Linneman, Junior Husky, Pete Drake, [Jimmy] ‘Spider’ Wilson … there were ten of us that was kept there. We stayed there for the next forty years,” he said.[1]

Waycross County by Ralph Davis on Nashville Records

His window on the music scene

In 1962, Davis got in on the ground floor of the Window Music Publishing Company, operated by steel guitarist Pete Drake, Starday Records producer Tommy Hill, and others. In 1963, Starday Records subsidiary Nashville issued a single (no. 5142) by Davis himself. In “Waycross County” Davis sang a story about a heartbroken Southern man living far away from home, which seemed a popular theme at the time as Bobby Bare scored a big hit with “Detroit City” that year. Also that year, Ernest Tubb scored a Top 20 hit with Davis’s “Mr. Juke Box.” “That was the biggest that I ever wrote,” said Davis. Another notable song was “The Fool’s Side of Town,” which Archie Campbell cut in 1962. “We had a lot of success with Window,” he said.

Glen Davis, another brother, played drums for George Jones for several years during the 1960s. He joined the Jones Boys road band and played on recording sessions.

Davis produced the first recordings by the Bobby Harden Trio. “Bobby Harden and I wrote ‘Poor Boy’ [1965]. I produced Bobby on Starday for a while,” said Davis. “He had some single records out after his sisters retired [in 1967, replaced by Onie Wheeler’s daughter Karen, and Shirley Michaels]. We wrote ‘Too Cold At Home’ and we cut the demo at my studio. My son [Danny] cut it before Mark Chesnutt did [in 1990], but we never did get it out.” Davis also produced solo work by Karen Wheeler.

His son Danny, also known as “Double D,” first appeared on the “Opry” in 1968 when he was five years old, playing drums with Billy Grammer. He started playing bass regularly on the program around 1981, and worked jobs with the likes of Porter Wagoner, Merle Haggard, Skeeter Davis, George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Ray Price.[2]

1999 marked the end of an era at the “Grand Ole Opry,” when management asked most of the regular musicians to retire. After forty years, Davis left the stage of the “Opry” for the last time. “I got to work with some great people,” he said. “It was my desire, when I was young, growing up on the little farm over here. We had a battery-operated radio and I’d listen to the ‘Opry’ every Saturday night.” A decade after leaving the Opry, Ralph Davis passed away in Waynesboro, Tennessee, on October 29, 2010.

****************************************************

Notes

  1. Ralph Davis interviewed by Keith Cady in 2003.
  2. Russ Corey. “Davis not looking to be big star, just a musician.” http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20080110/NEWS/801100303?Title=Davis-not-looking-to-be-big-star-just-a-musician (Retrieved 2011)
    Anita Miller. “Wayne County Music History: Danny Davis.” http://validitymag.com/2014/04/wayne-county-music-history-danny-davis/ (Retrieved 2017)

Part 2: Titus Brothers and Fortune Records

Originally from Middle Tennessee, Ralph Davis and his brothers played music in Detroit, Michigan, during the early-to-mid 1950s. In 1957, they cut a record for Jack Brown’s Hi-Q label. As winter 1958 progressed, Davis made a decision that changed the direction of his life. Click here to view part one.

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As Ralph Davis was stationed in Missouri with the army, playing western swing with a ten-piece band nightly, his brother Kenny stayed active in Detroit, playing fiddle with Bud Titus and his brothers Bob and Bill on the west side of town.

Originally from Central Lake (northeast of Traverse City), Michigan, the Titus brothers performed as the Rocky Mountaineers at community parties, theaters, and benefits, during the late 1940s. Barely grown into their teens, they appeared as a main act on the “Boardman Valley Barn Dance” broadcast by WTCM radio in Traverse City, in 1949. A year later, the brothers moved to Garden City (west of Detroit), Michigan.[1]

Titus Brothers
Bud Titus and the Titus Brothers, 1957. From left: Bob Titus (bass), Kenny Davis (fiddle), Bud Titus (vocal, rhythm guitar), Bill Titus (electric guitar), Gene Johnson (steel guitar).[6] Source: Keith Cady, courtesy Bob Titus
During 1956, the Titus Brothers appeared on TV and radio in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Possibly at the invitation of Sage & Sand Records producer Pat Nelson, who worked with many Detroit-based artists, in spring 1957 Bud took two self-penned songs to Cincinnati, Ohio, and cut them with guitarist Bobby Bobo. A musician on WLW radio’s “Midwestern Hayride,” Bobo played some slick Chet Atkins-styled finger picking at the session, which added to the record’s appeal (it’s still one of the more popular reissues from the Sage & Sand catalog). The songs “Tomorrow” and “Hocus Pocus” appeared on the Sage label (Sage 244) in June. “Tomorrow” attracted spins from regional disk jockeys, but all three Titus Brothers kept their day jobs, and promoted the single mostly within the Detroit area.[2]

Western Rhythm Boys

A few weeks after the release of Bud Titus’ Sage record, Ralph Davis returned to Michigan and started a new group he called the Western Rhythm Boys. “There was me, Guy [Davis], and Kenny [Davis], and Chuck Burak playing steel,” said Davis.[3] “He had a steel, and he put pedals on it with coat hangers. He worked on it all the time. [laughs] … A guy by the name of Buddy played the lead guitar … We had a little drummer named Dean Finney. He lived in Ypsilanti. … We played a little place up in Ann Arbor. I can’t remember the name of it. A nice lady owned it, and we played there on Sunday nights.

“I was working out at Shelden Hall [on Plymouth Road in Livonia, located where a shopping center now stands, near Shelden Park]. Tracey White used to own that little hall. … It was a barn-looking place. Real authentic-looking. … We leased that place from him. It was packed on the weekends! We stayed there for two or three years, I guess. I used to live down the street, not too far from there,” he said.[4]

Besides working Shelden Hall on weekends, Davis and the group volunteered to entertain the ill and infirm. A January 1958 feature on teen-aged singer Joannie King in Teen Life magazine mentioned she sang with the Ralph Davis band at Detroit area hospitals.[5]

A Hi-Q disk

Searching For You by Ralph Davis and the Western Rhythm BoysDuring late 1957, Davis cut two original songs for Jack Brown of Fortune Records in Detroit. “There was a guy up there at Shelden Hall, just hanging around. He came up to me and asked if I’d like to make a record. I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Well, I got some pull over there at Fortune Records.’ So he told them. I went over there and talked with them, sang with a guitar. And they decided, if I’d get the right songs … you know,” he said.

“They wanted to do it in that little studio [on Third Street], and I didn’t want to. I said I’d rather do it in a better place. … I cut that at a little studio on Cass [Avenue], upstairs. It was a pretty good sound, for those days.” Issued on Brown’s Hi-Q label, “Searching For You” backed with “Undecided Heart” featured bass, drums, steel guitar, fiddle, and Davis’ vocal and rhythm guitar. “That’s all I played back then,” he said. “That’s all I’ve ever played, mountain guitar. I play a little banjo and mandolin, but not enough to amount to anything. … My brother Kenny, he’s a great musician. A great mandolin player. … He played fiddle fluently, and he plays a great guitar. He bought his first guitar in Detroit. He had an old electric Gibson, but he bought a Fender Stratocaster, and he still plays it.”

The record benefitted from the quality production Davis sought at the other studio. Unlike many sessions cut at the Fortune Records building, a sound engineer at the studio on Cass mixed the instruments with a pleasant balance. “Undecided Heart” came off like a Hank Thompson performance with a rock’n’roll backbeat. “It wasn’t no hit, but we got a lot of work out of it,” he said. “I took it down to Nashville with me.”

Davis continued: “One night we was working this club in Ann Arbor, I’ll never forget it. I had an old ’53 Buick, and it had those fluid [electric] windows in it, and somebody rolled one down behind, and we couldn’t get it up. Boy, I was freezing! On the way home, Marty [Robbins] was singing on the radio. We had tuned in WSM (I always listened). I told Kenny, ‘Do you know what I’m gonna do?’ And he said, ‘Nah.’ I said, ‘I’m going back to Nashville.’ He said, ‘What for?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna get on the Opry.’ And he just laughed, ‘Oh yeah?’ I said, ‘Yeah. In two weeks, I’m leaving.’ And so I did. I went out there and gave them my notice, and you know what? He left before I did!”

Next week! Ralph Davis, Part Three — Mr. Juke Box

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Notes

  1. Bob Titus shared with Keith Cady a variety of newspaper clippings from a family scrapbook that documented the Rocky Mountaineers and Titus Brothers bands.
  2. “Titus Boys’ Recording Tops Local ‘Country’ Hit Parade” Automatic Transmission News. (July, 1957) 4. Published by Ford Motor Company, out of the Livonia Transmission Plant.
  3. Ralph Davis interviewed by Keith Cady in 2003.
  4. Davis said the owner of Shelden Hall was a man named Tracey White, but not the Detroit guitarist of the same name.
  5. Effie Burrus. “Personable Joannie King Visits Teen Life Editor” Teen Life. (Jan. 6, 1958. Vol. 3, No. 1) 5. King recorded a single for Sand Records (a Sage and Sand label) at the end of 1957 (“OK Doll” b/w “History” Sand no. 258). Davis and his band did not play on it.
  6. According to Keith Cady, Gene Johnson was a member of Roy Acuff’s Smokey Mountain Boys during the 1930s, and a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He played steel guitar through the early 2000s.

Style 3

The following piece is presented at the request of Mr. Faulkner’s family. Our condolences to all Mr. Faulkner’s relatives and friends.

Nolan Faulkner, 2021
Top of page: Candid snapshot of Mr. Faulkner with the Miller Brothers band. Above: A recent portrait of Mr. Faulkner

Lee Nolan Faulkner, 89, of Fancy Farm, KY (formerly of the Detroit area) passed away peacefully on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. He was born June 18, 1932 in Wolfe County, KY to John and Grace (Napier) Faulkner. Lee loved to tell jokes, watch U-K Wildcats Basketball, and talk with his friends. He was a proud Mason, and had a lifelong passion for playing the mandolin, and bluegrass music.

Lee was internationally respected in the bluegrass music world for his artistry on the mandolin, and for his songwriting ability. He initially played with groups such as the Powell County Boys, and the Kentucky Troubadours in his home state, before moving to Brighton, Michigan, in the 1950s. There, he played and recorded with Red Ellis, who was a radio host on WHRV Ann Arbor, for the Pathway and Starday record labels. He served as a mentor to many musically-inclined University of Michigan students who played in his band, the Big Sandy Boys, including Doug Green (“Riders in the Sky”), and Andy Stein (“Commander Cody”). In the early 1970s, Lee began to play with Kentucky transplants Earl, James, and Charlie Miller – the Miller Brothers – in the Detroit area, and he maintained an especially close personal and musical friendship with James Miller throughout the rest of their lives. The band recorded for Jessup Records of Jackson, Michigan, and Old Homestead Records of Brighton.

Lee’s mandolin style, strongly influenced by Bill Monroe and the blues, was highlighted on the 1976 album “The Legendary Kentucky Mandolin of Nolan Faulkner,” which consisted almost entirely of original songs and arrangements. He was in great demand locally for studio recording, and he appeared on albums by Lee Allen, Wade Mainer, Bob Smallwood, Larry Sparks, Joe Meadows, Clyde Moody, Charlie Moore, John Hunley, and others. He continued to play locally throughout the 1980s and 1990s with John Hunley and his Lost Kentuckians at their home base of Jack Daniel’s Lounge in Lincoln Park, and he traveled and recorded with Roy McGinnis and the Sunnysiders, Robert White and the Candy Mountain Boys, and James Miller. His musical career was featured in an article published in the September 2021 edition of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine.

Lee was preceded in death by five children: Shawn, Timmy, and Jimmy Faulkner, Penny Faulkner Rose, and Gail (Carl) Faulkner Rogers. He is survived by three children: Wanda Faulkner Underwood, Brent (Robin) Faulkner, and Tony (Laura) Faulkner; 9 grandchildren, 11 great grandchildren, and four great-great grandchildren. 

Per Lee’s wishes, no services were held.

The family requests that any memorial contributions be made to “KCTCS Foundation,” at 300 North Main Street, Versailles, KY 40383, directed to the “Hazard Community and Technical College – Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music” in Lee’s honor.

The Miller Brothers with Nolan Faulkner holding his mandolin

It was supposed to be a blog post. It grew into a book.

It’s been nine years since Detroit Country Music was published. Its first few chapters make it clear that country music in Detroit goes back almost a hundred years, arriving in 1939 with the release of a 78 rpm record titled “Hamtramck Mama” via the Detroit-based Universal label.

Book cover of "Tomorrow Brings Memories - Detroit's First Underground Record Company" by Craig Maki

Since 2013, I’ve gathered more stories about the men and women involved with the label, as well as the Hot Wax, and Mellow labels. Combined, they represent an impressive body of work for the time (World War II) and the place (Detroit, Michigan). I churned what began as a series of blog posts (unpublished) into a new 130-page pocketbook.

Here’s the back cover blurb:

In 1939, a new record from a shadowy storefront on Detroit’s east side starts showing up in juke boxes all over town. It quickly becomes a smash hit, sending men scrambling to cash in, by creating Detroit’s first home-grown record company Here’s the untold story of an unlikely pair of tattooed hustlers: an ex-con, and a shell-shocked World War I vet, plus: juke boxes, the mafia, Hamtramck mamas, Wayne County grifters, the first all-female western swing act on records, the first rockabilly trio — all playing roles in sensational music originally pressed on 78 rpm discs that document the dawn of Detroit’s recording industry.

The contents include:

  • stories,
  • quotes from interviews,
  • illustrations,
  • photos,
  • record label scans, and
  • discographies.

Purchase online at lulu.com, The Book Beat, and Barnes & Noble.

78 records surrounding the book "Tomorrow Brings Memories" by Craig Maki

After a lifetime of playing music in Detroit, Johnny Clem’s recollections form a winding trail through Detroit nightclubs, bars and lounges whose past existence is now only evidenced by photos and stories, such as the time he worked with bandleader Danny Richards at a barn dance staged in the legendary Graystone Ballroom during the 1950s, or when he recorded for Joe Von Battle in the back of Joe’s Record Shop on Hastings Street.

From Alabama to Detroit

Tiny Elkmont, Alabama, near the southern border of Tennessee, sits almost the same distance from Nashville to the north, and Birmingham to the south. The Delmore Brothers, renowned for making hillbilly blues and boogie woogie popular during the 1930s, were born there, as was Johnny Clem on September 7, 1929, the year that the Delmores started their act. A few years later, during the Great Depression, Clem’s father took a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority, and moved the family to east Tennessee.

Clem’s friendly personality and ability to learn multiple musical instruments led him to sit in with many groups at a moment’s notice. In 1946, Clem picked electric guitar for the Golden West Cowgirls (Gladys and Ann) during early morning radio broadcasts at WROL Knoxville. He joined the U.S. Navy the following year, and after completing two years of service, moved to Detroit to work in Chrysler’s facilities on the east side of town. (Clem remained active in the navy for another six years.)

Johnny Clem and band at Detroit's 3-JJJs in 1956
1956 at the 3-JJJs bar on West Vernor. From left: Johnny Clem, Tommy Odom, Joe Chadwick, and Leon Chessire. Source: Craig Maki, courtesy Johnny Clem

While living in a dense area of the city populated by thousands of people who had arrived from the South for work, Clem found loads of opportunities to play music in local bars. Jeff Durham, a guitarist, singer, and comedian, led a band at a nightclub on Jefferson Avenue and St. Jean, where Clem played his first Detroit gig, strumming a Hawaiian steel guitar in the group. “Jeff would do comedy, and put makeup on his face,” remembered Clem. “Then he shined a black light on himself, to make his face glow.” [1] Durham also had a reputation for finger style (or Travis) picking, as he had grown up in Muhlenburg, Kentucky, and had been acquainted with guitarists Mose Rager, Ike Everly, and Merle Travis. (Watch for an upcoming story about Jeff Durham and his brother Bob.)

An eager participant in country-western jamborees held at bars such as Ted’s Ten-Hi [you can see him in the group photo at the front of the chapter on Eddie Jackson in the “Detroit Country Music” book], Clem also taught himself how to play piano. “I never learned to read music, but I still got pretty good,” he said. “[Piano] became my main instrument for many years.”

According to Clem, his early gigs in Detroit included:

ca. 1950 — Al Dorman’s Bar, with Pioneer Playboys: Johnny, Chuck, Bill, and George Upton (14800 Mack, near Alter)
1950 — Caravan Gardens, with Eddie Jackson (Woodrow Wilson and Davison)
1951 — Torch Bar, with trio (East Jefferson Avenue, across from Hudson Motor Car facilities)
1951 — [Unknown club], with Waldo Walker (East Jefferson Avenue and Kitchener)
1952-53 — Torch Bar, with Swannee Caldwell (bass) and Red Peterson (guitar) [2]

A tattle on Von Battle

In 1953, Clem worked briefly with African American record shop owner Joe Von Battle. In the back of Joe’s Record Shop at 3530 Hastings, Von Battle built a recording studio. Clem said he often visited a restaurant across the street from the shop, and he got to know Von Battle by running into him there. “After our gigs, after the clubs closed, the boys and I’d go to the Checker Bar-B-Q near Hastings Street,” said Clem. “I don’t remember how we met, but [Von Battle] wanted me to cut a country version of a song called, ‘Another Soldier Gone.’ Eventually, we visited the studio he had in the back of his shop and cut it. I sang and played piano on it. I don’t think it was released, but Joe gave me a dub of it on a record.”

Johnny and the Astronauts, 1960
Johnny and the Astronauts at a Detroit nightclub (possibly Joe’s Bar), ca. 1960. From left: Johnny Clem, Dennie Rollin, Sonny Croft, Jim Hoelbrook, and Louie Schaeky. Source: Craig Maki, courtesy Johnny Clem

From around 1948, Von Battle had been recording local blues, jazz, and gospel performers. He had just cut “Another Soldier Gone” by a vocal group called the Violinaires, issued on the Drummond label of Detroit, and he wanted to explore the idea of making a “crossover” record of it with Clem. At the time, record companies often directed their pop and country-western artists to remake popular rhythm and blues songs, and vice versa. While the artists and instrumental style of these records differed, the songs themselves often appeared on multiple charts.

Clem’s version of “Another Soldier Gone” wasn’t released commercially. But the memory of this small episode in Clem’s career provides us with one of the earliest accounts of black and white musicians collaborating in Detroit.

Astronaut of Detroit rock

When it came to music, Clem approached it with an open heart and mind, and his reputation kept him working. More bookings included the following with local bandleaders:

mid-1950s — Yale Bar with Luke Kelley (Warren at the John C. Lodge Freeway)
1955 — Dixie Belle, with Jack Luker (Vernor and McKinstry)
1956 — 3-JJJs, with Les York (Vernor and Clark)

Not surprisingly, Clem was an early adopter of rock’n’roll, which was popular in the city from the mid-1950s through the 1970s. One of his first rocking gigs was at the Shamrock Bar on Third Street and Selden, a rough area in 1957-59, but each musician (Sonny Croft – drums, vocals; Leon Chessire – lead guitar) earned $20 a night, which amounted to big bucks in those days.

After Casey Clark ceased production of the Lazy Ranch Boys Barn Dance in the union hall at 12101 Mack Avenue in 1957, Clem, vocalist Randy Sea and six other musicians worked dances there on weekends.

1978 ad for Jimmy Kelley and the Kaguns at Rose Lounge
Ad clipping for Jimmy Kelley and the Kaguns, featuring Johnny Clem (far left), from 1978. Jimmy Kelley is at far right.

Clem’s next move was to play piano with vocalist Carl Parker. They had a steady gig at the Scenic Inn (Fort and Miami) with a man named Ted on saxophone around 1960, reportedly earning $300 per week. Then he joined Randy Sea, with Norm Sands on drums, and Leon Chessire on guitar at the Rose Bar (Vernor and Morell). Clem’s own band, Johnny and the Astronauts, worked Joe’s Bar at Jefferson and Chene, from around 1960-64, and for a while included guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Johnson, who later worked in Nashville with the Louvin Brothers, Leroy VanDyke, Jimmy Dickens and others, and spent four years on the “Grand Ole Opry” (Johnson died in 2014).

Clem also worked at Joe’s Bar with guitarist Bill Merritt, who played in town for many years. From there, Clem gigged at Ted’s 10-Hi on Jefferson and Fairview with Deano DelRay, and then to the O’Mack Bar (Mack and St. Jean) with Waldo Walker and Whitey Franklin. From about 1964-68, Clem worked the 509 Club downtown with Franklin and his brother Jimmy.

With Clem on piano, Carl Parker cut some recordings for which they didn’t find a commercial outlet. The recording presented with this story was made during a gig by guitarist Al Allen and the Sounds at Jerry’s Show Bar in 1960, and features Parker, with Clem on piano, sitting in with the band.

Listen to: Carl Parker with Johnny Clem (piano) and Al Allen (guitar)

Johnny Clem at his keyboard in 1999
Johnny Clem at his keyboard in 1999

Some country recordings were put on tape with Jay Preston for the Clix label, based in Troy, Michigan, which seem to be lost, as well as a session at Fortune Records in Detroit. Although Johnny Clem didn’t release records of his own, he made a contribution to the Detroit scene, like many others who shared space on local bandstands (for another example, see Happy Moore’s story). Through the decades, Clem worked with vocalist Danny Richards at the Red Robin on Jefferson Avenue and at the Hazel Park Eagles with Richards and guitarist Chuck Oakes. In 1978 Clem had a steady gig at Rose Lounge on West Vernor with bandleader Jimmy Kelley (Luke Kelley’s son). He played at the Clinton Gables Hotel on the Clinton River near downtown Mount Clemens, with Tony Gee and the Continentals during the 1970s, as well as Castaways near 23 Mile and VanDyke with Jay Preston and guitarist Dave Morgan.

During the 1990s, Clem moved just north of Palm Beach, Florida, and entertained crowds of retirees “as much as I could stand it,” he said with a chuckle. As of this writing, Clem is back in Michigan to be near family, and retired from entertaining.

Update: Johnny Clem passed away June 3, 2018.

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Notes

  1. John Clem interviewed by Craig Maki in January 2016.
  2. Many nightclub owners booked extended contracts with bands for weeks of steady entertainment.

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.

Part 3: Mr. Juke Box

Originally from Middle Tennessee, Ralph Davis and his brothers played music in Detroit, Michigan, during the early-to-mid 1950s. In 1957, they cut a record for Jack Brown’s Hi-Q label. Then he headed south. Click here to view part two.

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Ralph DavisSoon after moving to Nashville, Tennessee, from Michigan during the winter of 1958, Ralph Davis and his brothers Ken and Guy rustled up some gigs playing music in the city’s active night club scene.

I had to get a job when I went down there – something to do besides the music. I got a job in a print shop. Then I started writing songs, and hanging around Tootsie’s. I met a lot of people there. … Next thing I knew, I had [a song on] an Ernest Tubb record.

Ralph Davis worked with bandleader “Big Jeff” (Grover Franklin Bess) and his Radio Playboys for a while. At that time, Big Jeff and his wife, Tootsie, owned the famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway, a hangout for musicians who worked the “Opry” stage at the Ryman Auditorium, which was located near a back door to the club.

“Tommy Hill was a great influence on me,” said Davis. “He liked some of the songs I’d written, so I made a demo at Starday [Recording Studio]. They started getting some of them recorded [by] Archie Campbell, Roy Drusky … Then Tommy asked me once if I’d fill in for him at the “Opry.” He was a rhythm [guitar] player. I said, ‘Sure, man!’ I got to know all the acts down there. When Tommy decided he didn’t want to play [on a particular night], I’d go take his place.

“One day he told me, ‘I’m gonna quit. Do you want the job?’ I said, ‘You bet I do.’ This was, like, 1960. I talked with the manager and he said, ‘Yeah, as far as I’m concerned.’ It wasn’t really called a ‘staff band’ at that time. It [depended on] the artists who wanted to use you. That went on until about ’68. And I worked the road some with Roy Drusky, Dale Wood and Jean Shepard. But then one day they called [the musicians] in and told us they were making a staff band, and they were just gonna keep so many of us to play. Me and my brother [Guy] were included in it. Hal Love, Billy Linneman, Junior Husky, Pete Drake, [Jimmy] ‘Spider’ Wilson … there were ten of us that was kept there. We stayed there for the next forty years,” he said.[1]

Waycross County by Ralph Davis on Nashville Records

His window on the music scene

In 1962, Davis got in on the ground floor of the Window Music Publishing Company, operated by steel guitarist Pete Drake, Starday Records producer Tommy Hill, and others. In 1963, Starday Records subsidiary Nashville issued a single (no. 5142) by Davis himself. In “Waycross County” Davis sang a story about a heartbroken Southern man living far away from home, which seemed a popular theme at the time as Bobby Bare scored a big hit with “Detroit City” that year. Also that year, Ernest Tubb scored a Top 20 hit with Davis’s “Mr. Juke Box.” “That was the biggest that I ever wrote,” said Davis. Another notable song was “The Fool’s Side of Town,” which Archie Campbell cut in 1962. “We had a lot of success with Window,” he said.

Glen Davis, another brother, played drums for George Jones for several years during the 1960s. He joined the Jones Boys road band and played on recording sessions.

Davis produced the first recordings by the Bobby Harden Trio. “Bobby Harden and I wrote ‘Poor Boy’ [1965]. I produced Bobby on Starday for a while,” said Davis. “He had some single records out after his sisters retired [in 1967, replaced by Onie Wheeler’s daughter Karen, and Shirley Michaels]. We wrote ‘Too Cold At Home’ and we cut the demo at my studio. My son [Danny] cut it before Mark Chesnutt did [in 1990], but we never did get it out.” Davis also produced solo work by Karen Wheeler.

His son Danny, also known as “Double D,” first appeared on the “Opry” in 1968 when he was five years old, playing drums with Billy Grammer. He started playing bass regularly on the program around 1981, and worked jobs with the likes of Porter Wagoner, Merle Haggard, Skeeter Davis, George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Ray Price.[2]

1999 marked the end of an era at the “Grand Ole Opry,” when management asked most of the regular musicians to retire. After forty years, Davis left the stage of the “Opry” for the last time. “I got to work with some great people,” he said. “It was my desire, when I was young, growing up on the little farm over here. We had a battery-operated radio and I’d listen to the ‘Opry’ every Saturday night.” A decade after leaving the Opry, Ralph Davis passed away in Waynesboro, Tennessee, on October 29, 2010.

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Notes

  1. Ralph Davis interviewed by Keith Cady in 2003.
  2. Russ Corey. “Davis not looking to be big star, just a musician.” http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20080110/NEWS/801100303?Title=Davis-not-looking-to-be-big-star-just-a-musician (Retrieved 2011)
    Anita Miller. “Wayne County Music History: Danny Davis.” http://validitymag.com/2014/04/wayne-county-music-history-danny-davis/ (Retrieved 2017)

Part 2: Titus Brothers and Fortune Records

Originally from Middle Tennessee, Ralph Davis and his brothers played music in Detroit, Michigan, during the early-to-mid 1950s. In 1957, they cut a record for Jack Brown’s Hi-Q label. As winter 1958 progressed, Davis made a decision that changed the direction of his life. Click here to view part one.

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As Ralph Davis was stationed in Missouri with the army, playing western swing with a ten-piece band nightly, his brother Kenny stayed active in Detroit, playing fiddle with Bud Titus and his brothers Bob and Bill on the west side of town.

Originally from Central Lake (northeast of Traverse City), Michigan, the Titus brothers performed as the Rocky Mountaineers at community parties, theaters, and benefits, during the late 1940s. Barely grown into their teens, they appeared as a main act on the “Boardman Valley Barn Dance” broadcast by WTCM radio in Traverse City, in 1949. A year later, the brothers moved to Garden City (west of Detroit), Michigan.[1]

Titus Brothers
Bud Titus and the Titus Brothers, 1957. From left: Bob Titus (bass), Kenny Davis (fiddle), Bud Titus (vocal, rhythm guitar), Bill Titus (electric guitar), Gene Johnson (steel guitar).[6] Source: Keith Cady, courtesy Bob Titus
During 1956, the Titus Brothers appeared on TV and radio in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Possibly at the invitation of Sage & Sand Records producer Pat Nelson, who worked with many Detroit-based artists, in spring 1957 Bud took two self-penned songs to Cincinnati, Ohio, and cut them with guitarist Bobby Bobo. A musician on WLW radio’s “Midwestern Hayride,” Bobo played some slick Chet Atkins-styled finger picking at the session, which added to the record’s appeal (it’s still one of the more popular reissues from the Sage & Sand catalog). The songs “Tomorrow” and “Hocus Pocus” appeared on the Sage label (Sage 244) in June. “Tomorrow” attracted spins from regional disk jockeys, but all three Titus Brothers kept their day jobs, and promoted the single mostly within the Detroit area.[2]

Western Rhythm Boys

A few weeks after the release of Bud Titus’ Sage record, Ralph Davis returned to Michigan and started a new group he called the Western Rhythm Boys. “There was me, Guy [Davis], and Kenny [Davis], and Chuck Burak playing steel,” said Davis.[3] “He had a steel, and he put pedals on it with coat hangers. He worked on it all the time. [laughs] … A guy by the name of Buddy played the lead guitar … We had a little drummer named Dean Finney. He lived in Ypsilanti. … We played a little place up in Ann Arbor. I can’t remember the name of it. A nice lady owned it, and we played there on Sunday nights.

“I was working out at Shelden Hall [on Plymouth Road in Livonia, located where a shopping center now stands, near Shelden Park]. Tracey White used to own that little hall. … It was a barn-looking place. Real authentic-looking. … We leased that place from him. It was packed on the weekends! We stayed there for two or three years, I guess. I used to live down the street, not too far from there,” he said.[4]

Besides working Shelden Hall on weekends, Davis and the group volunteered to entertain the ill and infirm. A January 1958 feature on teen-aged singer Joannie King in Teen Life magazine mentioned she sang with the Ralph Davis band at Detroit area hospitals.[5]

A Hi-Q disk

Searching For You by Ralph Davis and the Western Rhythm BoysDuring late 1957, Davis cut two original songs for Jack Brown of Fortune Records in Detroit. “There was a guy up there at Shelden Hall, just hanging around. He came up to me and asked if I’d like to make a record. I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Well, I got some pull over there at Fortune Records.’ So he told them. I went over there and talked with them, sang with a guitar. And they decided, if I’d get the right songs … you know,” he said.

“They wanted to do it in that little studio [on Third Street], and I didn’t want to. I said I’d rather do it in a better place. … I cut that at a little studio on Cass [Avenue], upstairs. It was a pretty good sound, for those days.” Issued on Brown’s Hi-Q label, “Searching For You” backed with “Undecided Heart” featured bass, drums, steel guitar, fiddle, and Davis’ vocal and rhythm guitar. “That’s all I played back then,” he said. “That’s all I’ve ever played, mountain guitar. I play a little banjo and mandolin, but not enough to amount to anything. … My brother Kenny, he’s a great musician. A great mandolin player. … He played fiddle fluently, and he plays a great guitar. He bought his first guitar in Detroit. He had an old electric Gibson, but he bought a Fender Stratocaster, and he still plays it.”

The record benefitted from the quality production Davis sought at the other studio. Unlike many sessions cut at the Fortune Records building, a sound engineer at the studio on Cass mixed the instruments with a pleasant balance. “Undecided Heart” came off like a Hank Thompson performance with a rock’n’roll backbeat. “It wasn’t no hit, but we got a lot of work out of it,” he said. “I took it down to Nashville with me.”

Davis continued: “One night we was working this club in Ann Arbor, I’ll never forget it. I had an old ’53 Buick, and it had those fluid [electric] windows in it, and somebody rolled one down behind, and we couldn’t get it up. Boy, I was freezing! On the way home, Marty [Robbins] was singing on the radio. We had tuned in WSM (I always listened). I told Kenny, ‘Do you know what I’m gonna do?’ And he said, ‘Nah.’ I said, ‘I’m going back to Nashville.’ He said, ‘What for?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna get on the Opry.’ And he just laughed, ‘Oh yeah?’ I said, ‘Yeah. In two weeks, I’m leaving.’ And so I did. I went out there and gave them my notice, and you know what? He left before I did!”

Next week! Ralph Davis, Part Three — Mr. Juke Box

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Notes

  1. Bob Titus shared with Keith Cady a variety of newspaper clippings from a family scrapbook that documented the Rocky Mountaineers and Titus Brothers bands.
  2. “Titus Boys’ Recording Tops Local ‘Country’ Hit Parade” Automatic Transmission News. (July, 1957) 4. Published by Ford Motor Company, out of the Livonia Transmission Plant.
  3. Ralph Davis interviewed by Keith Cady in 2003.
  4. Davis said the owner of Shelden Hall was a man named Tracey White, but not the Detroit guitarist of the same name.
  5. Effie Burrus. “Personable Joannie King Visits Teen Life Editor” Teen Life. (Jan. 6, 1958. Vol. 3, No. 1) 5. King recorded a single for Sand Records (a Sage and Sand label) at the end of 1957 (“OK Doll” b/w “History” Sand no. 258). Davis and his band did not play on it.
  6. According to Keith Cady, Gene Johnson was a member of Roy Acuff’s Smokey Mountain Boys during the 1930s, and a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He played steel guitar through the early 2000s.

Style 4

The Miller Brothers with Nolan Faulkner holding his mandolin

The following piece is presented at the request of Mr. Faulkner’s family. Our condolences to all Mr. Faulkner’s relatives and friends.

Nolan Faulkner, 2021
Top of page: Candid snapshot of Mr. Faulkner with the Miller Brothers band. Above: A recent portrait of Mr. Faulkner

Lee Nolan Faulkner, 89, of Fancy Farm, KY (formerly of the Detroit area) passed away peacefully on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. He was born June 18, 1932 in Wolfe County, KY to John and Grace (Napier) Faulkner. Lee loved to tell jokes, watch U-K Wildcats Basketball, and talk with his friends. He was a proud Mason, and had a lifelong passion for playing the mandolin, and bluegrass music.

Lee was internationally respected in the bluegrass music world for his artistry on the mandolin, and for his songwriting ability. He initially played with groups such as the Powell County Boys, and the Kentucky Troubadours in his home state, before moving to Brighton, Michigan, in the 1950s. There, he played and recorded with Red Ellis, who was a radio host on WHRV Ann Arbor, for the Pathway and Starday record labels. He served as a mentor to many musically-inclined University of Michigan students who played in his band, the Big Sandy Boys, including Doug Green (“Riders in the Sky”), and Andy Stein (“Commander Cody”). In the early 1970s, Lee began to play with Kentucky transplants Earl, James, and Charlie Miller – the Miller Brothers – in the Detroit area, and he maintained an especially close personal and musical friendship with James Miller throughout the rest of their lives. The band recorded for Jessup Records of Jackson, Michigan, and Old Homestead Records of Brighton.

Lee’s mandolin style, strongly influenced by Bill Monroe and the blues, was highlighted on the 1976 album “The Legendary Kentucky Mandolin of Nolan Faulkner,” which consisted almost entirely of original songs and arrangements. He was in great demand locally for studio recording, and he appeared on albums by Lee Allen, Wade Mainer, Bob Smallwood, Larry Sparks, Joe Meadows, Clyde Moody, Charlie Moore, John Hunley, and others. He continued to play locally throughout the 1980s and 1990s with John Hunley and his Lost Kentuckians at their home base of Jack Daniel’s Lounge in Lincoln Park, and he traveled and recorded with Roy McGinnis and the Sunnysiders, Robert White and the Candy Mountain Boys, and James Miller. His musical career was featured in an article published in the September 2021 edition of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine.

Lee was preceded in death by five children: Shawn, Timmy, and Jimmy Faulkner, Penny Faulkner Rose, and Gail (Carl) Faulkner Rogers. He is survived by three children: Wanda Faulkner Underwood, Brent (Robin) Faulkner, and Tony (Laura) Faulkner; 9 grandchildren, 11 great grandchildren, and four great-great grandchildren. 

Per Lee’s wishes, no services were held.

The family requests that any memorial contributions be made to “KCTCS Foundation,” at 300 North Main Street, Versailles, KY 40383, directed to the “Hazard Community and Technical College – Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music” in Lee’s honor.

78 records surrounding the book "Tomorrow Brings Memories" by Craig Maki

It was supposed to be a blog post. It grew into a book.

It’s been nine years since Detroit Country Music was published. Its first few chapters make it clear that country music in Detroit goes back almost a hundred years, arriving in 1939 with the release of a 78 rpm record titled “Hamtramck Mama” via the Detroit-based Universal label.

Book cover of "Tomorrow Brings Memories - Detroit's First Underground Record Company" by Craig Maki

Since 2013, I’ve gathered more stories about the men and women involved with the label, as well as the Hot Wax, and Mellow labels. Combined, they represent an impressive body of work for the time (World War II) and the place (Detroit, Michigan). I churned what began as a series of blog posts (unpublished) into a new 130-page pocketbook.

Here’s the back cover blurb:

In 1939, a new record from a shadowy storefront on Detroit’s east side starts showing up in juke boxes all over town. It quickly becomes a smash hit, sending men scrambling to cash in, by creating Detroit’s first home-grown record company Here’s the untold story of an unlikely pair of tattooed hustlers: an ex-con, and a shell-shocked World War I vet, plus: juke boxes, the mafia, Hamtramck mamas, Wayne County grifters, the first all-female western swing act on records, the first rockabilly trio — all playing roles in sensational music originally pressed on 78 rpm discs that document the dawn of Detroit’s recording industry.

The contents include:

  • stories,
  • quotes from interviews,
  • illustrations,
  • photos,
  • record label scans, and
  • discographies.

Purchase online at lulu.com, The Book Beat, and Barnes & Noble.

After a lifetime of playing music in Detroit, Johnny Clem’s recollections form a winding trail through Detroit nightclubs, bars and lounges whose past existence is now only evidenced by photos and stories, such as the time he worked with bandleader Danny Richards at a barn dance staged in the legendary Graystone Ballroom during the 1950s, or when he recorded for Joe Von Battle in the back of Joe’s Record Shop on Hastings Street.

From Alabama to Detroit

Tiny Elkmont, Alabama, near the southern border of Tennessee, sits almost the same distance from Nashville to the north, and Birmingham to the south. The Delmore Brothers, renowned for making hillbilly blues and boogie woogie popular during the 1930s, were born there, as was Johnny Clem on September 7, 1929, the year that the Delmores started their act. A few years later, during the Great Depression, Clem’s father took a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority, and moved the family to east Tennessee.

Clem’s friendly personality and ability to learn multiple musical instruments led him to sit in with many groups at a moment’s notice. In 1946, Clem picked electric guitar for the Golden West Cowgirls (Gladys and Ann) during early morning radio broadcasts at WROL Knoxville. He joined the U.S. Navy the following year, and after completing two years of service, moved to Detroit to work in Chrysler’s facilities on the east side of town. (Clem remained active in the navy for another six years.)

Johnny Clem and band at Detroit's 3-JJJs in 1956
1956 at the 3-JJJs bar on West Vernor. From left: Johnny Clem, Tommy Odom, Joe Chadwick, and Leon Chessire. Source: Craig Maki, courtesy Johnny Clem

While living in a dense area of the city populated by thousands of people who had arrived from the South for work, Clem found loads of opportunities to play music in local bars. Jeff Durham, a guitarist, singer, and comedian, led a band at a nightclub on Jefferson Avenue and St. Jean, where Clem played his first Detroit gig, strumming a Hawaiian steel guitar in the group. “Jeff would do comedy, and put makeup on his face,” remembered Clem. “Then he shined a black light on himself, to make his face glow.” [1] Durham also had a reputation for finger style (or Travis) picking, as he had grown up in Muhlenburg, Kentucky, and had been acquainted with guitarists Mose Rager, Ike Everly, and Merle Travis. (Watch for an upcoming story about Jeff Durham and his brother Bob.)

An eager participant in country-western jamborees held at bars such as Ted’s Ten-Hi [you can see him in the group photo at the front of the chapter on Eddie Jackson in the “Detroit Country Music” book], Clem also taught himself how to play piano. “I never learned to read music, but I still got pretty good,” he said. “[Piano] became my main instrument for many years.”

According to Clem, his early gigs in Detroit included:

ca. 1950 — Al Dorman’s Bar, with Pioneer Playboys: Johnny, Chuck, Bill, and George Upton (14800 Mack, near Alter)
1950 — Caravan Gardens, with Eddie Jackson (Woodrow Wilson and Davison)
1951 — Torch Bar, with trio (East Jefferson Avenue, across from Hudson Motor Car facilities)
1951 — [Unknown club], with Waldo Walker (East Jefferson Avenue and Kitchener)
1952-53 — Torch Bar, with Swannee Caldwell (bass) and Red Peterson (guitar) [2]

A tattle on Von Battle

In 1953, Clem worked briefly with African American record shop owner Joe Von Battle. In the back of Joe’s Record Shop at 3530 Hastings, Von Battle built a recording studio. Clem said he often visited a restaurant across the street from the shop, and he got to know Von Battle by running into him there. “After our gigs, after the clubs closed, the boys and I’d go to the Checker Bar-B-Q near Hastings Street,” said Clem. “I don’t remember how we met, but [Von Battle] wanted me to cut a country version of a song called, ‘Another Soldier Gone.’ Eventually, we visited the studio he had in the back of his shop and cut it. I sang and played piano on it. I don’t think it was released, but Joe gave me a dub of it on a record.”

Johnny and the Astronauts, 1960
Johnny and the Astronauts at a Detroit nightclub (possibly Joe’s Bar), ca. 1960. From left: Johnny Clem, Dennie Rollin, Sonny Croft, Jim Hoelbrook, and Louie Schaeky. Source: Craig Maki, courtesy Johnny Clem

From around 1948, Von Battle had been recording local blues, jazz, and gospel performers. He had just cut “Another Soldier Gone” by a vocal group called the Violinaires, issued on the Drummond label of Detroit, and he wanted to explore the idea of making a “crossover” record of it with Clem. At the time, record companies often directed their pop and country-western artists to remake popular rhythm and blues songs, and vice versa. While the artists and instrumental style of these records differed, the songs themselves often appeared on multiple charts.

Clem’s version of “Another Soldier Gone” wasn’t released commercially. But the memory of this small episode in Clem’s career provides us with one of the earliest accounts of black and white musicians collaborating in Detroit.

Astronaut of Detroit rock

When it came to music, Clem approached it with an open heart and mind, and his reputation kept him working. More bookings included the following with local bandleaders:

mid-1950s — Yale Bar with Luke Kelley (Warren at the John C. Lodge Freeway)
1955 — Dixie Belle, with Jack Luker (Vernor and McKinstry)
1956 — 3-JJJs, with Les York (Vernor and Clark)

Not surprisingly, Clem was an early adopter of rock’n’roll, which was popular in the city from the mid-1950s through the 1970s. One of his first rocking gigs was at the Shamrock Bar on Third Street and Selden, a rough area in 1957-59, but each musician (Sonny Croft – drums, vocals; Leon Chessire – lead guitar) earned $20 a night, which amounted to big bucks in those days.

After Casey Clark ceased production of the Lazy Ranch Boys Barn Dance in the union hall at 12101 Mack Avenue in 1957, Clem, vocalist Randy Sea and six other musicians worked dances there on weekends.

1978 ad for Jimmy Kelley and the Kaguns at Rose Lounge
Ad clipping for Jimmy Kelley and the Kaguns, featuring Johnny Clem (far left), from 1978. Jimmy Kelley is at far right.

Clem’s next move was to play piano with vocalist Carl Parker. They had a steady gig at the Scenic Inn (Fort and Miami) with a man named Ted on saxophone around 1960, reportedly earning $300 per week. Then he joined Randy Sea, with Norm Sands on drums, and Leon Chessire on guitar at the Rose Bar (Vernor and Morell). Clem’s own band, Johnny and the Astronauts, worked Joe’s Bar at Jefferson and Chene, from around 1960-64, and for a while included guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Johnson, who later worked in Nashville with the Louvin Brothers, Leroy VanDyke, Jimmy Dickens and others, and spent four years on the “Grand Ole Opry” (Johnson died in 2014).

Clem also worked at Joe’s Bar with guitarist Bill Merritt, who played in town for many years. From there, Clem gigged at Ted’s 10-Hi on Jefferson and Fairview with Deano DelRay, and then to the O’Mack Bar (Mack and St. Jean) with Waldo Walker and Whitey Franklin. From about 1964-68, Clem worked the 509 Club downtown with Franklin and his brother Jimmy.

With Clem on piano, Carl Parker cut some recordings for which they didn’t find a commercial outlet. The recording presented with this story was made during a gig by guitarist Al Allen and the Sounds at Jerry’s Show Bar in 1960, and features Parker, with Clem on piano, sitting in with the band.

Listen to: Carl Parker with Johnny Clem (piano) and Al Allen (guitar)

Johnny Clem at his keyboard in 1999
Johnny Clem at his keyboard in 1999

Some country recordings were put on tape with Jay Preston for the Clix label, based in Troy, Michigan, which seem to be lost, as well as a session at Fortune Records in Detroit. Although Johnny Clem didn’t release records of his own, he made a contribution to the Detroit scene, like many others who shared space on local bandstands (for another example, see Happy Moore’s story). Through the decades, Clem worked with vocalist Danny Richards at the Red Robin on Jefferson Avenue and at the Hazel Park Eagles with Richards and guitarist Chuck Oakes. In 1978 Clem had a steady gig at Rose Lounge on West Vernor with bandleader Jimmy Kelley (Luke Kelley’s son). He played at the Clinton Gables Hotel on the Clinton River near downtown Mount Clemens, with Tony Gee and the Continentals during the 1970s, as well as Castaways near 23 Mile and VanDyke with Jay Preston and guitarist Dave Morgan.

During the 1990s, Clem moved just north of Palm Beach, Florida, and entertained crowds of retirees “as much as I could stand it,” he said with a chuckle. As of this writing, Clem is back in Michigan to be near family, and retired from entertaining.

Update: Johnny Clem passed away June 3, 2018.

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Notes

  1. John Clem interviewed by Craig Maki in January 2016.
  2. Many nightclub owners booked extended contracts with bands for weeks of steady entertainment.

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.

Part 3: Mr. Juke Box

Originally from Middle Tennessee, Ralph Davis and his brothers played music in Detroit, Michigan, during the early-to-mid 1950s. In 1957, they cut a record for Jack Brown’s Hi-Q label. Then he headed south. Click here to view part two.

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Ralph DavisSoon after moving to Nashville, Tennessee, from Michigan during the winter of 1958, Ralph Davis and his brothers Ken and Guy rustled up some gigs playing music in the city’s active night club scene.

I had to get a job when I went down there – something to do besides the music. I got a job in a print shop. Then I started writing songs, and hanging around Tootsie’s. I met a lot of people there. … Next thing I knew, I had [a song on] an Ernest Tubb record.

Ralph Davis worked with bandleader “Big Jeff” (Grover Franklin Bess) and his Radio Playboys for a while. At that time, Big Jeff and his wife, Tootsie, owned the famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway, a hangout for musicians who worked the “Opry” stage at the Ryman Auditorium, which was located near a back door to the club.

“Tommy Hill was a great influence on me,” said Davis. “He liked some of the songs I’d written, so I made a demo at Starday [Recording Studio]. They started getting some of them recorded [by] Archie Campbell, Roy Drusky … Then Tommy asked me once if I’d fill in for him at the “Opry.” He was a rhythm [guitar] player. I said, ‘Sure, man!’ I got to know all the acts down there. When Tommy decided he didn’t want to play [on a particular night], I’d go take his place.

“One day he told me, ‘I’m gonna quit. Do you want the job?’ I said, ‘You bet I do.’ This was, like, 1960. I talked with the manager and he said, ‘Yeah, as far as I’m concerned.’ It wasn’t really called a ‘staff band’ at that time. It [depended on] the artists who wanted to use you. That went on until about ’68. And I worked the road some with Roy Drusky, Dale Wood and Jean Shepard. But then one day they called [the musicians] in and told us they were making a staff band, and they were just gonna keep so many of us to play. Me and my brother [Guy] were included in it. Hal Love, Billy Linneman, Junior Husky, Pete Drake, [Jimmy] ‘Spider’ Wilson … there were ten of us that was kept there. We stayed there for the next forty years,” he said.[1]

Waycross County by Ralph Davis on Nashville Records

His window on the music scene

In 1962, Davis got in on the ground floor of the Window Music Publishing Company, operated by steel guitarist Pete Drake, Starday Records producer Tommy Hill, and others. In 1963, Starday Records subsidiary Nashville issued a single (no. 5142) by Davis himself. In “Waycross County” Davis sang a story about a heartbroken Southern man living far away from home, which seemed a popular theme at the time as Bobby Bare scored a big hit with “Detroit City” that year. Also that year, Ernest Tubb scored a Top 20 hit with Davis’s “Mr. Juke Box.” “That was the biggest that I ever wrote,” said Davis. Another notable song was “The Fool’s Side of Town,” which Archie Campbell cut in 1962. “We had a lot of success with Window,” he said.

Glen Davis, another brother, played drums for George Jones for several years during the 1960s. He joined the Jones Boys road band and played on recording sessions.

Davis produced the first recordings by the Bobby Harden Trio. “Bobby Harden and I wrote ‘Poor Boy’ [1965]. I produced Bobby on Starday for a while,” said Davis. “He had some single records out after his sisters retired [in 1967, replaced by Onie Wheeler’s daughter Karen, and Shirley Michaels]. We wrote ‘Too Cold At Home’ and we cut the demo at my studio. My son [Danny] cut it before Mark Chesnutt did [in 1990], but we never did get it out.” Davis also produced solo work by Karen Wheeler.

His son Danny, also known as “Double D,” first appeared on the “Opry” in 1968 when he was five years old, playing drums with Billy Grammer. He started playing bass regularly on the program around 1981, and worked jobs with the likes of Porter Wagoner, Merle Haggard, Skeeter Davis, George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Ray Price.[2]

1999 marked the end of an era at the “Grand Ole Opry,” when management asked most of the regular musicians to retire. After forty years, Davis left the stage of the “Opry” for the last time. “I got to work with some great people,” he said. “It was my desire, when I was young, growing up on the little farm over here. We had a battery-operated radio and I’d listen to the ‘Opry’ every Saturday night.” A decade after leaving the Opry, Ralph Davis passed away in Waynesboro, Tennessee, on October 29, 2010.

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Notes

  1. Ralph Davis interviewed by Keith Cady in 2003.
  2. Russ Corey. “Davis not looking to be big star, just a musician.” http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20080110/NEWS/801100303?Title=Davis-not-looking-to-be-big-star-just-a-musician (Retrieved 2011)
    Anita Miller. “Wayne County Music History: Danny Davis.” http://validitymag.com/2014/04/wayne-county-music-history-danny-davis/ (Retrieved 2017)

Part 2: Titus Brothers and Fortune Records

Originally from Middle Tennessee, Ralph Davis and his brothers played music in Detroit, Michigan, during the early-to-mid 1950s. In 1957, they cut a record for Jack Brown’s Hi-Q label. As winter 1958 progressed, Davis made a decision that changed the direction of his life. Click here to view part one.

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As Ralph Davis was stationed in Missouri with the army, playing western swing with a ten-piece band nightly, his brother Kenny stayed active in Detroit, playing fiddle with Bud Titus and his brothers Bob and Bill on the west side of town.

Originally from Central Lake (northeast of Traverse City), Michigan, the Titus brothers performed as the Rocky Mountaineers at community parties, theaters, and benefits, during the late 1940s. Barely grown into their teens, they appeared as a main act on the “Boardman Valley Barn Dance” broadcast by WTCM radio in Traverse City, in 1949. A year later, the brothers moved to Garden City (west of Detroit), Michigan.[1]

Titus Brothers
Bud Titus and the Titus Brothers, 1957. From left: Bob Titus (bass), Kenny Davis (fiddle), Bud Titus (vocal, rhythm guitar), Bill Titus (electric guitar), Gene Johnson (steel guitar).[6] Source: Keith Cady, courtesy Bob Titus
During 1956, the Titus Brothers appeared on TV and radio in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Possibly at the invitation of Sage & Sand Records producer Pat Nelson, who worked with many Detroit-based artists, in spring 1957 Bud took two self-penned songs to Cincinnati, Ohio, and cut them with guitarist Bobby Bobo. A musician on WLW radio’s “Midwestern Hayride,” Bobo played some slick Chet Atkins-styled finger picking at the session, which added to the record’s appeal (it’s still one of the more popular reissues from the Sage & Sand catalog). The songs “Tomorrow” and “Hocus Pocus” appeared on the Sage label (Sage 244) in June. “Tomorrow” attracted spins from regional disk jockeys, but all three Titus Brothers kept their day jobs, and promoted the single mostly within the Detroit area.[2]

Western Rhythm Boys

A few weeks after the release of Bud Titus’ Sage record, Ralph Davis returned to Michigan and started a new group he called the Western Rhythm Boys. “There was me, Guy [Davis], and Kenny [Davis], and Chuck Burak playing steel,” said Davis.[3] “He had a steel, and he put pedals on it with coat hangers. He worked on it all the time. [laughs] … A guy by the name of Buddy played the lead guitar … We had a little drummer named Dean Finney. He lived in Ypsilanti. … We played a little place up in Ann Arbor. I can’t remember the name of it. A nice lady owned it, and we played there on Sunday nights.

“I was working out at Shelden Hall [on Plymouth Road in Livonia, located where a shopping center now stands, near Shelden Park]. Tracey White used to own that little hall. … It was a barn-looking place. Real authentic-looking. … We leased that place from him. It was packed on the weekends! We stayed there for two or three years, I guess. I used to live down the street, not too far from there,” he said.[4]

Besides working Shelden Hall on weekends, Davis and the group volunteered to entertain the ill and infirm. A January 1958 feature on teen-aged singer Joannie King in Teen Life magazine mentioned she sang with the Ralph Davis band at Detroit area hospitals.[5]

A Hi-Q disk

Searching For You by Ralph Davis and the Western Rhythm BoysDuring late 1957, Davis cut two original songs for Jack Brown of Fortune Records in Detroit. “There was a guy up there at Shelden Hall, just hanging around. He came up to me and asked if I’d like to make a record. I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Well, I got some pull over there at Fortune Records.’ So he told them. I went over there and talked with them, sang with a guitar. And they decided, if I’d get the right songs … you know,” he said.

“They wanted to do it in that little studio [on Third Street], and I didn’t want to. I said I’d rather do it in a better place. … I cut that at a little studio on Cass [Avenue], upstairs. It was a pretty good sound, for those days.” Issued on Brown’s Hi-Q label, “Searching For You” backed with “Undecided Heart” featured bass, drums, steel guitar, fiddle, and Davis’ vocal and rhythm guitar. “That’s all I played back then,” he said. “That’s all I’ve ever played, mountain guitar. I play a little banjo and mandolin, but not enough to amount to anything. … My brother Kenny, he’s a great musician. A great mandolin player. … He played fiddle fluently, and he plays a great guitar. He bought his first guitar in Detroit. He had an old electric Gibson, but he bought a Fender Stratocaster, and he still plays it.”

The record benefitted from the quality production Davis sought at the other studio. Unlike many sessions cut at the Fortune Records building, a sound engineer at the studio on Cass mixed the instruments with a pleasant balance. “Undecided Heart” came off like a Hank Thompson performance with a rock’n’roll backbeat. “It wasn’t no hit, but we got a lot of work out of it,” he said. “I took it down to Nashville with me.”

Davis continued: “One night we was working this club in Ann Arbor, I’ll never forget it. I had an old ’53 Buick, and it had those fluid [electric] windows in it, and somebody rolled one down behind, and we couldn’t get it up. Boy, I was freezing! On the way home, Marty [Robbins] was singing on the radio. We had tuned in WSM (I always listened). I told Kenny, ‘Do you know what I’m gonna do?’ And he said, ‘Nah.’ I said, ‘I’m going back to Nashville.’ He said, ‘What for?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna get on the Opry.’ And he just laughed, ‘Oh yeah?’ I said, ‘Yeah. In two weeks, I’m leaving.’ And so I did. I went out there and gave them my notice, and you know what? He left before I did!”

Next week! Ralph Davis, Part Three — Mr. Juke Box

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Notes

  1. Bob Titus shared with Keith Cady a variety of newspaper clippings from a family scrapbook that documented the Rocky Mountaineers and Titus Brothers bands.
  2. “Titus Boys’ Recording Tops Local ‘Country’ Hit Parade” Automatic Transmission News. (July, 1957) 4. Published by Ford Motor Company, out of the Livonia Transmission Plant.
  3. Ralph Davis interviewed by Keith Cady in 2003.
  4. Davis said the owner of Shelden Hall was a man named Tracey White, but not the Detroit guitarist of the same name.
  5. Effie Burrus. “Personable Joannie King Visits Teen Life Editor” Teen Life. (Jan. 6, 1958. Vol. 3, No. 1) 5. King recorded a single for Sand Records (a Sage and Sand label) at the end of 1957 (“OK Doll” b/w “History” Sand no. 258). Davis and his band did not play on it.
  6. According to Keith Cady, Gene Johnson was a member of Roy Acuff’s Smokey Mountain Boys during the 1930s, and a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He played steel guitar through the early 2000s.

Style 5

The following piece is presented at the request of Mr. Faulkner’s family. Our condolences to all Mr. Faulkner’s relatives and friends.

Nolan Faulkner, 2021
Top of page: Candid snapshot of Mr. Faulkner with the Miller Brothers band. Above: A recent portrait of Mr. Faulkner

Lee Nolan Faulkner, 89, of Fancy Farm, KY (formerly of the Detroit area) passed away peacefully on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. He was born June 18, 1932 in Wolfe County, KY to John and Grace (Napier) Faulkner. Lee loved to tell jokes, watch U-K Wildcats Basketball, and talk with his friends. He was a proud Mason, and had a lifelong passion for playing the mandolin, and bluegrass music.

Lee was internationally respected in the bluegrass music world for his artistry on the mandolin, and for his songwriting ability. He initially played with groups such as the Powell County Boys, and the Kentucky Troubadours in his home state, before moving to Brighton, Michigan, in the 1950s. There, he played and recorded with Red Ellis, who was a radio host on WHRV Ann Arbor, for the Pathway and Starday record labels. He served as a mentor to many musically-inclined University of Michigan students who played in his band, the Big Sandy Boys, including Doug Green (“Riders in the Sky”), and Andy Stein (“Commander Cody”). In the early 1970s, Lee began to play with Kentucky transplants Earl, James, and Charlie Miller – the Miller Brothers – in the Detroit area, and he maintained an especially close personal and musical friendship with James Miller throughout the rest of their lives. The band recorded for Jessup Records of Jackson, Michigan, and Old Homestead Records of Brighton.

Lee’s mandolin style, strongly influenced by Bill Monroe and the blues, was highlighted on the 1976 album “The Legendary Kentucky Mandolin of Nolan Faulkner,” which consisted almost entirely of original songs and arrangements. He was in great demand locally for studio recording, and he appeared on albums by Lee Allen, Wade Mainer, Bob Smallwood, Larry Sparks, Joe Meadows, Clyde Moody, Charlie Moore, John Hunley, and others. He continued to play locally throughout the 1980s and 1990s with John Hunley and his Lost Kentuckians at their home base of Jack Daniel’s Lounge in Lincoln Park, and he traveled and recorded with Roy McGinnis and the Sunnysiders, Robert White and the Candy Mountain Boys, and James Miller. His musical career was featured in an article published in the September 2021 edition of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine.

Lee was preceded in death by five children: Shawn, Timmy, and Jimmy Faulkner, Penny Faulkner Rose, and Gail (Carl) Faulkner Rogers. He is survived by three children: Wanda Faulkner Underwood, Brent (Robin) Faulkner, and Tony (Laura) Faulkner; 9 grandchildren, 11 great grandchildren, and four great-great grandchildren. 

Per Lee’s wishes, no services were held.

The family requests that any memorial contributions be made to “KCTCS Foundation,” at 300 North Main Street, Versailles, KY 40383, directed to the “Hazard Community and Technical College – Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music” in Lee’s honor.

The Miller Brothers with Nolan Faulkner holding his mandolin

It was supposed to be a blog post. It grew into a book.

It’s been nine years since Detroit Country Music was published. Its first few chapters make it clear that country music in Detroit goes back almost a hundred years, arriving in 1939 with the release of a 78 rpm record titled “Hamtramck Mama” via the Detroit-based Universal label.

Book cover of "Tomorrow Brings Memories - Detroit's First Underground Record Company" by Craig Maki

Since 2013, I’ve gathered more stories about the men and women involved with the label, as well as the Hot Wax, and Mellow labels. Combined, they represent an impressive body of work for the time (World War II) and the place (Detroit, Michigan). I churned what began as a series of blog posts (unpublished) into a new 130-page pocketbook.

Here’s the back cover blurb:

In 1939, a new record from a shadowy storefront on Detroit’s east side starts showing up in juke boxes all over town. It quickly becomes a smash hit, sending men scrambling to cash in, by creating Detroit’s first home-grown record company Here’s the untold story of an unlikely pair of tattooed hustlers: an ex-con, and a shell-shocked World War I vet, plus: juke boxes, the mafia, Hamtramck mamas, Wayne County grifters, the first all-female western swing act on records, the first rockabilly trio — all playing roles in sensational music originally pressed on 78 rpm discs that document the dawn of Detroit’s recording industry.

The contents include:

  • stories,
  • quotes from interviews,
  • illustrations,
  • photos,
  • record label scans, and
  • discographies.

Purchase online at lulu.com, The Book Beat, and Barnes & Noble.

78 records surrounding the book "Tomorrow Brings Memories" by Craig Maki

After a lifetime of playing music in Detroit, Johnny Clem’s recollections form a winding trail through Detroit nightclubs, bars and lounges whose past existence is now only evidenced by photos and stories, such as the time he worked with bandleader Danny Richards at a barn dance staged in the legendary Graystone Ballroom during the 1950s, or when he recorded for Joe Von Battle in the back of Joe’s Record Shop on Hastings Street.

From Alabama to Detroit

Tiny Elkmont, Alabama, near the southern border of Tennessee, sits almost the same distance from Nashville to the north, and Birmingham to the south. The Delmore Brothers, renowned for making hillbilly blues and boogie woogie popular during the 1930s, were born there, as was Johnny Clem on September 7, 1929, the year that the Delmores started their act. A few years later, during the Great Depression, Clem’s father took a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority, and moved the family to east Tennessee.

Clem’s friendly personality and ability to learn multiple musical instruments led him to sit in with many groups at a moment’s notice. In 1946, Clem picked electric guitar for the Golden West Cowgirls (Gladys and Ann) during early morning radio broadcasts at WROL Knoxville. He joined the U.S. Navy the following year, and after completing two years of service, moved to Detroit to work in Chrysler’s facilities on the east side of town. (Clem remained active in the navy for another six years.)

Johnny Clem and band at Detroit's 3-JJJs in 1956
1956 at the 3-JJJs bar on West Vernor. From left: Johnny Clem, Tommy Odom, Joe Chadwick, and Leon Chessire. Source: Craig Maki, courtesy Johnny Clem

While living in a dense area of the city populated by thousands of people who had arrived from the South for work, Clem found loads of opportunities to play music in local bars. Jeff Durham, a guitarist, singer, and comedian, led a band at a nightclub on Jefferson Avenue and St. Jean, where Clem played his first Detroit gig, strumming a Hawaiian steel guitar in the group. “Jeff would do comedy, and put makeup on his face,” remembered Clem. “Then he shined a black light on himself, to make his face glow.” [1] Durham also had a reputation for finger style (or Travis) picking, as he had grown up in Muhlenburg, Kentucky, and had been acquainted with guitarists Mose Rager, Ike Everly, and Merle Travis. (Watch for an upcoming story about Jeff Durham and his brother Bob.)

An eager participant in country-western jamborees held at bars such as Ted’s Ten-Hi [you can see him in the group photo at the front of the chapter on Eddie Jackson in the “Detroit Country Music” book], Clem also taught himself how to play piano. “I never learned to read music, but I still got pretty good,” he said. “[Piano] became my main instrument for many years.”

According to Clem, his early gigs in Detroit included:

ca. 1950 — Al Dorman’s Bar, with Pioneer Playboys: Johnny, Chuck, Bill, and George Upton (14800 Mack, near Alter)
1950 — Caravan Gardens, with Eddie Jackson (Woodrow Wilson and Davison)
1951 — Torch Bar, with trio (East Jefferson Avenue, across from Hudson Motor Car facilities)
1951 — [Unknown club], with Waldo Walker (East Jefferson Avenue and Kitchener)
1952-53 — Torch Bar, with Swannee Caldwell (bass) and Red Peterson (guitar) [2]

A tattle on Von Battle

In 1953, Clem worked briefly with African American record shop owner Joe Von Battle. In the back of Joe’s Record Shop at 3530 Hastings, Von Battle built a recording studio. Clem said he often visited a restaurant across the street from the shop, and he got to know Von Battle by running into him there. “After our gigs, after the clubs closed, the boys and I’d go to the Checker Bar-B-Q near Hastings Street,” said Clem. “I don’t remember how we met, but [Von Battle] wanted me to cut a country version of a song called, ‘Another Soldier Gone.’ Eventually, we visited the studio he had in the back of his shop and cut it. I sang and played piano on it. I don’t think it was released, but Joe gave me a dub of it on a record.”

Johnny and the Astronauts, 1960
Johnny and the Astronauts at a Detroit nightclub (possibly Joe’s Bar), ca. 1960. From left: Johnny Clem, Dennie Rollin, Sonny Croft, Jim Hoelbrook, and Louie Schaeky. Source: Craig Maki, courtesy Johnny Clem

From around 1948, Von Battle had been recording local blues, jazz, and gospel performers. He had just cut “Another Soldier Gone” by a vocal group called the Violinaires, issued on the Drummond label of Detroit, and he wanted to explore the idea of making a “crossover” record of it with Clem. At the time, record companies often directed their pop and country-western artists to remake popular rhythm and blues songs, and vice versa. While the artists and instrumental style of these records differed, the songs themselves often appeared on multiple charts.

Clem’s version of “Another Soldier Gone” wasn’t released commercially. But the memory of this small episode in Clem’s career provides us with one of the earliest accounts of black and white musicians collaborating in Detroit.

Astronaut of Detroit rock

When it came to music, Clem approached it with an open heart and mind, and his reputation kept him working. More bookings included the following with local bandleaders:

mid-1950s — Yale Bar with Luke Kelley (Warren at the John C. Lodge Freeway)
1955 — Dixie Belle, with Jack Luker (Vernor and McKinstry)
1956 — 3-JJJs, with Les York (Vernor and Clark)

Not surprisingly, Clem was an early adopter of rock’n’roll, which was popular in the city from the mid-1950s through the 1970s. One of his first rocking gigs was at the Shamrock Bar on Third Street and Selden, a rough area in 1957-59, but each musician (Sonny Croft – drums, vocals; Leon Chessire – lead guitar) earned $20 a night, which amounted to big bucks in those days.

After Casey Clark ceased production of the Lazy Ranch Boys Barn Dance in the union hall at 12101 Mack Avenue in 1957, Clem, vocalist Randy Sea and six other musicians worked dances there on weekends.

1978 ad for Jimmy Kelley and the Kaguns at Rose Lounge
Ad clipping for Jimmy Kelley and the Kaguns, featuring Johnny Clem (far left), from 1978. Jimmy Kelley is at far right.

Clem’s next move was to play piano with vocalist Carl Parker. They had a steady gig at the Scenic Inn (Fort and Miami) with a man named Ted on saxophone around 1960, reportedly earning $300 per week. Then he joined Randy Sea, with Norm Sands on drums, and Leon Chessire on guitar at the Rose Bar (Vernor and Morell). Clem’s own band, Johnny and the Astronauts, worked Joe’s Bar at Jefferson and Chene, from around 1960-64, and for a while included guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Johnson, who later worked in Nashville with the Louvin Brothers, Leroy VanDyke, Jimmy Dickens and others, and spent four years on the “Grand Ole Opry” (Johnson died in 2014).

Clem also worked at Joe’s Bar with guitarist Bill Merritt, who played in town for many years. From there, Clem gigged at Ted’s 10-Hi on Jefferson and Fairview with Deano DelRay, and then to the O’Mack Bar (Mack and St. Jean) with Waldo Walker and Whitey Franklin. From about 1964-68, Clem worked the 509 Club downtown with Franklin and his brother Jimmy.

With Clem on piano, Carl Parker cut some recordings for which they didn’t find a commercial outlet. The recording presented with this story was made during a gig by guitarist Al Allen and the Sounds at Jerry’s Show Bar in 1960, and features Parker, with Clem on piano, sitting in with the band.

Listen to: Carl Parker with Johnny Clem (piano) and Al Allen (guitar)

Johnny Clem at his keyboard in 1999
Johnny Clem at his keyboard in 1999

Some country recordings were put on tape with Jay Preston for the Clix label, based in Troy, Michigan, which seem to be lost, as well as a session at Fortune Records in Detroit. Although Johnny Clem didn’t release records of his own, he made a contribution to the Detroit scene, like many others who shared space on local bandstands (for another example, see Happy Moore’s story). Through the decades, Clem worked with vocalist Danny Richards at the Red Robin on Jefferson Avenue and at the Hazel Park Eagles with Richards and guitarist Chuck Oakes. In 1978 Clem had a steady gig at Rose Lounge on West Vernor with bandleader Jimmy Kelley (Luke Kelley’s son). He played at the Clinton Gables Hotel on the Clinton River near downtown Mount Clemens, with Tony Gee and the Continentals during the 1970s, as well as Castaways near 23 Mile and VanDyke with Jay Preston and guitarist Dave Morgan.

During the 1990s, Clem moved just north of Palm Beach, Florida, and entertained crowds of retirees “as much as I could stand it,” he said with a chuckle. As of this writing, Clem is back in Michigan to be near family, and retired from entertaining.

Update: Johnny Clem passed away June 3, 2018.

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Notes

  1. John Clem interviewed by Craig Maki in January 2016.
  2. Many nightclub owners booked extended contracts with bands for weeks of steady entertainment.

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.

Part 3: Mr. Juke Box

Originally from Middle Tennessee, Ralph Davis and his brothers played music in Detroit, Michigan, during the early-to-mid 1950s. In 1957, they cut a record for Jack Brown’s Hi-Q label. Then he headed south. Click here to view part two.

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Ralph DavisSoon after moving to Nashville, Tennessee, from Michigan during the winter of 1958, Ralph Davis and his brothers Ken and Guy rustled up some gigs playing music in the city’s active night club scene.

I had to get a job when I went down there – something to do besides the music. I got a job in a print shop. Then I started writing songs, and hanging around Tootsie’s. I met a lot of people there. … Next thing I knew, I had [a song on] an Ernest Tubb record.

Ralph Davis worked with bandleader “Big Jeff” (Grover Franklin Bess) and his Radio Playboys for a while. At that time, Big Jeff and his wife, Tootsie, owned the famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway, a hangout for musicians who worked the “Opry” stage at the Ryman Auditorium, which was located near a back door to the club.

“Tommy Hill was a great influence on me,” said Davis. “He liked some of the songs I’d written, so I made a demo at Starday [Recording Studio]. They started getting some of them recorded [by] Archie Campbell, Roy Drusky … Then Tommy asked me once if I’d fill in for him at the “Opry.” He was a rhythm [guitar] player. I said, ‘Sure, man!’ I got to know all the acts down there. When Tommy decided he didn’t want to play [on a particular night], I’d go take his place.

“One day he told me, ‘I’m gonna quit. Do you want the job?’ I said, ‘You bet I do.’ This was, like, 1960. I talked with the manager and he said, ‘Yeah, as far as I’m concerned.’ It wasn’t really called a ‘staff band’ at that time. It [depended on] the artists who wanted to use you. That went on until about ’68. And I worked the road some with Roy Drusky, Dale Wood and Jean Shepard. But then one day they called [the musicians] in and told us they were making a staff band, and they were just gonna keep so many of us to play. Me and my brother [Guy] were included in it. Hal Love, Billy Linneman, Junior Husky, Pete Drake, [Jimmy] ‘Spider’ Wilson … there were ten of us that was kept there. We stayed there for the next forty years,” he said.[1]

Waycross County by Ralph Davis on Nashville Records

His window on the music scene

In 1962, Davis got in on the ground floor of the Window Music Publishing Company, operated by steel guitarist Pete Drake, Starday Records producer Tommy Hill, and others. In 1963, Starday Records subsidiary Nashville issued a single (no. 5142) by Davis himself. In “Waycross County” Davis sang a story about a heartbroken Southern man living far away from home, which seemed a popular theme at the time as Bobby Bare scored a big hit with “Detroit City” that year. Also that year, Ernest Tubb scored a Top 20 hit with Davis’s “Mr. Juke Box.” “That was the biggest that I ever wrote,” said Davis. Another notable song was “The Fool’s Side of Town,” which Archie Campbell cut in 1962. “We had a lot of success with Window,” he said.

Glen Davis, another brother, played drums for George Jones for several years during the 1960s. He joined the Jones Boys road band and played on recording sessions.

Davis produced the first recordings by the Bobby Harden Trio. “Bobby Harden and I wrote ‘Poor Boy’ [1965]. I produced Bobby on Starday for a while,” said Davis. “He had some single records out after his sisters retired [in 1967, replaced by Onie Wheeler’s daughter Karen, and Shirley Michaels]. We wrote ‘Too Cold At Home’ and we cut the demo at my studio. My son [Danny] cut it before Mark Chesnutt did [in 1990], but we never did get it out.” Davis also produced solo work by Karen Wheeler.

His son Danny, also known as “Double D,” first appeared on the “Opry” in 1968 when he was five years old, playing drums with Billy Grammer. He started playing bass regularly on the program around 1981, and worked jobs with the likes of Porter Wagoner, Merle Haggard, Skeeter Davis, George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Ray Price.[2]

1999 marked the end of an era at the “Grand Ole Opry,” when management asked most of the regular musicians to retire. After forty years, Davis left the stage of the “Opry” for the last time. “I got to work with some great people,” he said. “It was my desire, when I was young, growing up on the little farm over here. We had a battery-operated radio and I’d listen to the ‘Opry’ every Saturday night.” A decade after leaving the Opry, Ralph Davis passed away in Waynesboro, Tennessee, on October 29, 2010.

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Notes

  1. Ralph Davis interviewed by Keith Cady in 2003.
  2. Russ Corey. “Davis not looking to be big star, just a musician.” http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20080110/NEWS/801100303?Title=Davis-not-looking-to-be-big-star-just-a-musician (Retrieved 2011)
    Anita Miller. “Wayne County Music History: Danny Davis.” http://validitymag.com/2014/04/wayne-county-music-history-danny-davis/ (Retrieved 2017)

Part 2: Titus Brothers and Fortune Records

Originally from Middle Tennessee, Ralph Davis and his brothers played music in Detroit, Michigan, during the early-to-mid 1950s. In 1957, they cut a record for Jack Brown’s Hi-Q label. As winter 1958 progressed, Davis made a decision that changed the direction of his life. Click here to view part one.

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As Ralph Davis was stationed in Missouri with the army, playing western swing with a ten-piece band nightly, his brother Kenny stayed active in Detroit, playing fiddle with Bud Titus and his brothers Bob and Bill on the west side of town.

Originally from Central Lake (northeast of Traverse City), Michigan, the Titus brothers performed as the Rocky Mountaineers at community parties, theaters, and benefits, during the late 1940s. Barely grown into their teens, they appeared as a main act on the “Boardman Valley Barn Dance” broadcast by WTCM radio in Traverse City, in 1949. A year later, the brothers moved to Garden City (west of Detroit), Michigan.[1]

Titus Brothers
Bud Titus and the Titus Brothers, 1957. From left: Bob Titus (bass), Kenny Davis (fiddle), Bud Titus (vocal, rhythm guitar), Bill Titus (electric guitar), Gene Johnson (steel guitar).[6] Source: Keith Cady, courtesy Bob Titus
During 1956, the Titus Brothers appeared on TV and radio in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Possibly at the invitation of Sage & Sand Records producer Pat Nelson, who worked with many Detroit-based artists, in spring 1957 Bud took two self-penned songs to Cincinnati, Ohio, and cut them with guitarist Bobby Bobo. A musician on WLW radio’s “Midwestern Hayride,” Bobo played some slick Chet Atkins-styled finger picking at the session, which added to the record’s appeal (it’s still one of the more popular reissues from the Sage & Sand catalog). The songs “Tomorrow” and “Hocus Pocus” appeared on the Sage label (Sage 244) in June. “Tomorrow” attracted spins from regional disk jockeys, but all three Titus Brothers kept their day jobs, and promoted the single mostly within the Detroit area.[2]

Western Rhythm Boys

A few weeks after the release of Bud Titus’ Sage record, Ralph Davis returned to Michigan and started a new group he called the Western Rhythm Boys. “There was me, Guy [Davis], and Kenny [Davis], and Chuck Burak playing steel,” said Davis.[3] “He had a steel, and he put pedals on it with coat hangers. He worked on it all the time. [laughs] … A guy by the name of Buddy played the lead guitar … We had a little drummer named Dean Finney. He lived in Ypsilanti. … We played a little place up in Ann Arbor. I can’t remember the name of it. A nice lady owned it, and we played there on Sunday nights.

“I was working out at Shelden Hall [on Plymouth Road in Livonia, located where a shopping center now stands, near Shelden Park]. Tracey White used to own that little hall. … It was a barn-looking place. Real authentic-looking. … We leased that place from him. It was packed on the weekends! We stayed there for two or three years, I guess. I used to live down the street, not too far from there,” he said.[4]

Besides working Shelden Hall on weekends, Davis and the group volunteered to entertain the ill and infirm. A January 1958 feature on teen-aged singer Joannie King in Teen Life magazine mentioned she sang with the Ralph Davis band at Detroit area hospitals.[5]

A Hi-Q disk

Searching For You by Ralph Davis and the Western Rhythm BoysDuring late 1957, Davis cut two original songs for Jack Brown of Fortune Records in Detroit. “There was a guy up there at Shelden Hall, just hanging around. He came up to me and asked if I’d like to make a record. I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Well, I got some pull over there at Fortune Records.’ So he told them. I went over there and talked with them, sang with a guitar. And they decided, if I’d get the right songs … you know,” he said.

“They wanted to do it in that little studio [on Third Street], and I didn’t want to. I said I’d rather do it in a better place. … I cut that at a little studio on Cass [Avenue], upstairs. It was a pretty good sound, for those days.” Issued on Brown’s Hi-Q label, “Searching For You” backed with “Undecided Heart” featured bass, drums, steel guitar, fiddle, and Davis’ vocal and rhythm guitar. “That’s all I played back then,” he said. “That’s all I’ve ever played, mountain guitar. I play a little banjo and mandolin, but not enough to amount to anything. … My brother Kenny, he’s a great musician. A great mandolin player. … He played fiddle fluently, and he plays a great guitar. He bought his first guitar in Detroit. He had an old electric Gibson, but he bought a Fender Stratocaster, and he still plays it.”

The record benefitted from the quality production Davis sought at the other studio. Unlike many sessions cut at the Fortune Records building, a sound engineer at the studio on Cass mixed the instruments with a pleasant balance. “Undecided Heart” came off like a Hank Thompson performance with a rock’n’roll backbeat. “It wasn’t no hit, but we got a lot of work out of it,” he said. “I took it down to Nashville with me.”

Davis continued: “One night we was working this club in Ann Arbor, I’ll never forget it. I had an old ’53 Buick, and it had those fluid [electric] windows in it, and somebody rolled one down behind, and we couldn’t get it up. Boy, I was freezing! On the way home, Marty [Robbins] was singing on the radio. We had tuned in WSM (I always listened). I told Kenny, ‘Do you know what I’m gonna do?’ And he said, ‘Nah.’ I said, ‘I’m going back to Nashville.’ He said, ‘What for?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna get on the Opry.’ And he just laughed, ‘Oh yeah?’ I said, ‘Yeah. In two weeks, I’m leaving.’ And so I did. I went out there and gave them my notice, and you know what? He left before I did!”

Next week! Ralph Davis, Part Three — Mr. Juke Box

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Notes

  1. Bob Titus shared with Keith Cady a variety of newspaper clippings from a family scrapbook that documented the Rocky Mountaineers and Titus Brothers bands.
  2. “Titus Boys’ Recording Tops Local ‘Country’ Hit Parade” Automatic Transmission News. (July, 1957) 4. Published by Ford Motor Company, out of the Livonia Transmission Plant.
  3. Ralph Davis interviewed by Keith Cady in 2003.
  4. Davis said the owner of Shelden Hall was a man named Tracey White, but not the Detroit guitarist of the same name.
  5. Effie Burrus. “Personable Joannie King Visits Teen Life Editor” Teen Life. (Jan. 6, 1958. Vol. 3, No. 1) 5. King recorded a single for Sand Records (a Sage and Sand label) at the end of 1957 (“OK Doll” b/w “History” Sand no. 258). Davis and his band did not play on it.
  6. According to Keith Cady, Gene Johnson was a member of Roy Acuff’s Smokey Mountain Boys during the 1930s, and a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He played steel guitar through the early 2000s.

Style 6

The following piece is presented at the request of Mr. Faulkner’s family. Our condolences to all Mr. Faulkner’s relatives and friends.

Nolan Faulkner, 2021
Top of page: Candid snapshot of Mr. Faulkner with the Miller Brothers band. Above: A recent portrait of Mr. Faulkner

Lee Nolan Faulkner, 89, of Fancy Farm, KY (formerly of the Detroit area) passed away peacefully on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. He was born June 18, 1932 in Wolfe County, KY to John and Grace (Napier) Faulkner. Lee loved to tell jokes, watch U-K Wildcats Basketball, and talk with his friends. He was a proud Mason, and had a lifelong passion for playing the mandolin, and bluegrass music.

Lee was internationally respected in the bluegrass music world for his artistry on the mandolin, and for his songwriting ability. He initially played with groups such as the Powell County Boys, and the Kentucky Troubadours in his home state, before moving to Brighton, Michigan, in the 1950s. There, he played and recorded with Red Ellis, who was a radio host on WHRV Ann Arbor, for the Pathway and Starday record labels. He served as a mentor to many musically-inclined University of Michigan students who played in his band, the Big Sandy Boys, including Doug Green (“Riders in the Sky”), and Andy Stein (“Commander Cody”). In the early 1970s, Lee began to play with Kentucky transplants Earl, James, and Charlie Miller – the Miller Brothers – in the Detroit area, and he maintained an especially close personal and musical friendship with James Miller throughout the rest of their lives. The band recorded for Jessup Records of Jackson, Michigan, and Old Homestead Records of Brighton.

Lee’s mandolin style, strongly influenced by Bill Monroe and the blues, was highlighted on the 1976 album “The Legendary Kentucky Mandolin of Nolan Faulkner,” which consisted almost entirely of original songs and arrangements. He was in great demand locally for studio recording, and he appeared on albums by Lee Allen, Wade Mainer, Bob Smallwood, Larry Sparks, Joe Meadows, Clyde Moody, Charlie Moore, John Hunley, and others. He continued to play locally throughout the 1980s and 1990s with John Hunley and his Lost Kentuckians at their home base of Jack Daniel’s Lounge in Lincoln Park, and he traveled and recorded with Roy McGinnis and the Sunnysiders, Robert White and the Candy Mountain Boys, and James Miller. His musical career was featured in an article published in the September 2021 edition of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine.

Lee was preceded in death by five children: Shawn, Timmy, and Jimmy Faulkner, Penny Faulkner Rose, and Gail (Carl) Faulkner Rogers. He is survived by three children: Wanda Faulkner Underwood, Brent (Robin) Faulkner, and Tony (Laura) Faulkner; 9 grandchildren, 11 great grandchildren, and four great-great grandchildren. 

Per Lee’s wishes, no services were held.

The family requests that any memorial contributions be made to “KCTCS Foundation,” at 300 North Main Street, Versailles, KY 40383, directed to the “Hazard Community and Technical College – Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music” in Lee’s honor.

The Miller Brothers with Nolan Faulkner holding his mandolin

It was supposed to be a blog post. It grew into a book.

It’s been nine years since Detroit Country Music was published. Its first few chapters make it clear that country music in Detroit goes back almost a hundred years, arriving in 1939 with the release of a 78 rpm record titled “Hamtramck Mama” via the Detroit-based Universal label.

Book cover of "Tomorrow Brings Memories - Detroit's First Underground Record Company" by Craig Maki

Since 2013, I’ve gathered more stories about the men and women involved with the label, as well as the Hot Wax, and Mellow labels. Combined, they represent an impressive body of work for the time (World War II) and the place (Detroit, Michigan). I churned what began as a series of blog posts (unpublished) into a new 130-page pocketbook.

Here’s the back cover blurb:

In 1939, a new record from a shadowy storefront on Detroit’s east side starts showing up in juke boxes all over town. It quickly becomes a smash hit, sending men scrambling to cash in, by creating Detroit’s first home-grown record company Here’s the untold story of an unlikely pair of tattooed hustlers: an ex-con, and a shell-shocked World War I vet, plus: juke boxes, the mafia, Hamtramck mamas, Wayne County grifters, the first all-female western swing act on records, the first rockabilly trio — all playing roles in sensational music originally pressed on 78 rpm discs that document the dawn of Detroit’s recording industry.

The contents include:

  • stories,
  • quotes from interviews,
  • illustrations,
  • photos,
  • record label scans, and
  • discographies.

Purchase online at lulu.com, The Book Beat, and Barnes & Noble.

78 records surrounding the book "Tomorrow Brings Memories" by Craig Maki

After a lifetime of playing music in Detroit, Johnny Clem’s recollections form a winding trail through Detroit nightclubs, bars and lounges whose past existence is now only evidenced by photos and stories, such as the time he worked with bandleader Danny Richards at a barn dance staged in the legendary Graystone Ballroom during the 1950s, or when he recorded for Joe Von Battle in the back of Joe’s Record Shop on Hastings Street.

From Alabama to Detroit

Tiny Elkmont, Alabama, near the southern border of Tennessee, sits almost the same distance from Nashville to the north, and Birmingham to the south. The Delmore Brothers, renowned for making hillbilly blues and boogie woogie popular during the 1930s, were born there, as was Johnny Clem on September 7, 1929, the year that the Delmores started their act. A few years later, during the Great Depression, Clem’s father took a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority, and moved the family to east Tennessee.

Clem’s friendly personality and ability to learn multiple musical instruments led him to sit in with many groups at a moment’s notice. In 1946, Clem picked electric guitar for the Golden West Cowgirls (Gladys and Ann) during early morning radio broadcasts at WROL Knoxville. He joined the U.S. Navy the following year, and after completing two years of service, moved to Detroit to work in Chrysler’s facilities on the east side of town. (Clem remained active in the navy for another six years.)

Johnny Clem and band at Detroit's 3-JJJs in 1956
1956 at the 3-JJJs bar on West Vernor. From left: Johnny Clem, Tommy Odom, Joe Chadwick, and Leon Chessire. Source: Craig Maki, courtesy Johnny Clem

While living in a dense area of the city populated by thousands of people who had arrived from the South for work, Clem found loads of opportunities to play music in local bars. Jeff Durham, a guitarist, singer, and comedian, led a band at a nightclub on Jefferson Avenue and St. Jean, where Clem played his first Detroit gig, strumming a Hawaiian steel guitar in the group. “Jeff would do comedy, and put makeup on his face,” remembered Clem. “Then he shined a black light on himself, to make his face glow.” [1] Durham also had a reputation for finger style (or Travis) picking, as he had grown up in Muhlenburg, Kentucky, and had been acquainted with guitarists Mose Rager, Ike Everly, and Merle Travis. (Watch for an upcoming story about Jeff Durham and his brother Bob.)

An eager participant in country-western jamborees held at bars such as Ted’s Ten-Hi [you can see him in the group photo at the front of the chapter on Eddie Jackson in the “Detroit Country Music” book], Clem also taught himself how to play piano. “I never learned to read music, but I still got pretty good,” he said. “[Piano] became my main instrument for many years.”

According to Clem, his early gigs in Detroit included:

ca. 1950 — Al Dorman’s Bar, with Pioneer Playboys: Johnny, Chuck, Bill, and George Upton (14800 Mack, near Alter)
1950 — Caravan Gardens, with Eddie Jackson (Woodrow Wilson and Davison)
1951 — Torch Bar, with trio (East Jefferson Avenue, across from Hudson Motor Car facilities)
1951 — [Unknown club], with Waldo Walker (East Jefferson Avenue and Kitchener)
1952-53 — Torch Bar, with Swannee Caldwell (bass) and Red Peterson (guitar) [2]

A tattle on Von Battle

In 1953, Clem worked briefly with African American record shop owner Joe Von Battle. In the back of Joe’s Record Shop at 3530 Hastings, Von Battle built a recording studio. Clem said he often visited a restaurant across the street from the shop, and he got to know Von Battle by running into him there. “After our gigs, after the clubs closed, the boys and I’d go to the Checker Bar-B-Q near Hastings Street,” said Clem. “I don’t remember how we met, but [Von Battle] wanted me to cut a country version of a song called, ‘Another Soldier Gone.’ Eventually, we visited the studio he had in the back of his shop and cut it. I sang and played piano on it. I don’t think it was released, but Joe gave me a dub of it on a record.”

Johnny and the Astronauts, 1960
Johnny and the Astronauts at a Detroit nightclub (possibly Joe’s Bar), ca. 1960. From left: Johnny Clem, Dennie Rollin, Sonny Croft, Jim Hoelbrook, and Louie Schaeky. Source: Craig Maki, courtesy Johnny Clem

From around 1948, Von Battle had been recording local blues, jazz, and gospel performers. He had just cut “Another Soldier Gone” by a vocal group called the Violinaires, issued on the Drummond label of Detroit, and he wanted to explore the idea of making a “crossover” record of it with Clem. At the time, record companies often directed their pop and country-western artists to remake popular rhythm and blues songs, and vice versa. While the artists and instrumental style of these records differed, the songs themselves often appeared on multiple charts.

Clem’s version of “Another Soldier Gone” wasn’t released commercially. But the memory of this small episode in Clem’s career provides us with one of the earliest accounts of black and white musicians collaborating in Detroit.

Astronaut of Detroit rock

When it came to music, Clem approached it with an open heart and mind, and his reputation kept him working. More bookings included the following with local bandleaders:

mid-1950s — Yale Bar with Luke Kelley (Warren at the John C. Lodge Freeway)
1955 — Dixie Belle, with Jack Luker (Vernor and McKinstry)
1956 — 3-JJJs, with Les York (Vernor and Clark)

Not surprisingly, Clem was an early adopter of rock’n’roll, which was popular in the city from the mid-1950s through the 1970s. One of his first rocking gigs was at the Shamrock Bar on Third Street and Selden, a rough area in 1957-59, but each musician (Sonny Croft – drums, vocals; Leon Chessire – lead guitar) earned $20 a night, which amounted to big bucks in those days.

After Casey Clark ceased production of the Lazy Ranch Boys Barn Dance in the union hall at 12101 Mack Avenue in 1957, Clem, vocalist Randy Sea and six other musicians worked dances there on weekends.

1978 ad for Jimmy Kelley and the Kaguns at Rose Lounge
Ad clipping for Jimmy Kelley and the Kaguns, featuring Johnny Clem (far left), from 1978. Jimmy Kelley is at far right.

Clem’s next move was to play piano with vocalist Carl Parker. They had a steady gig at the Scenic Inn (Fort and Miami) with a man named Ted on saxophone around 1960, reportedly earning $300 per week. Then he joined Randy Sea, with Norm Sands on drums, and Leon Chessire on guitar at the Rose Bar (Vernor and Morell). Clem’s own band, Johnny and the Astronauts, worked Joe’s Bar at Jefferson and Chene, from around 1960-64, and for a while included guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Johnson, who later worked in Nashville with the Louvin Brothers, Leroy VanDyke, Jimmy Dickens and others, and spent four years on the “Grand Ole Opry” (Johnson died in 2014).

Clem also worked at Joe’s Bar with guitarist Bill Merritt, who played in town for many years. From there, Clem gigged at Ted’s 10-Hi on Jefferson and Fairview with Deano DelRay, and then to the O’Mack Bar (Mack and St. Jean) with Waldo Walker and Whitey Franklin. From about 1964-68, Clem worked the 509 Club downtown with Franklin and his brother Jimmy.

With Clem on piano, Carl Parker cut some recordings for which they didn’t find a commercial outlet. The recording presented with this story was made during a gig by guitarist Al Allen and the Sounds at Jerry’s Show Bar in 1960, and features Parker, with Clem on piano, sitting in with the band.

Listen to: Carl Parker with Johnny Clem (piano) and Al Allen (guitar)

Johnny Clem at his keyboard in 1999
Johnny Clem at his keyboard in 1999

Some country recordings were put on tape with Jay Preston for the Clix label, based in Troy, Michigan, which seem to be lost, as well as a session at Fortune Records in Detroit. Although Johnny Clem didn’t release records of his own, he made a contribution to the Detroit scene, like many others who shared space on local bandstands (for another example, see Happy Moore’s story). Through the decades, Clem worked with vocalist Danny Richards at the Red Robin on Jefferson Avenue and at the Hazel Park Eagles with Richards and guitarist Chuck Oakes. In 1978 Clem had a steady gig at Rose Lounge on West Vernor with bandleader Jimmy Kelley (Luke Kelley’s son). He played at the Clinton Gables Hotel on the Clinton River near downtown Mount Clemens, with Tony Gee and the Continentals during the 1970s, as well as Castaways near 23 Mile and VanDyke with Jay Preston and guitarist Dave Morgan.

During the 1990s, Clem moved just north of Palm Beach, Florida, and entertained crowds of retirees “as much as I could stand it,” he said with a chuckle. As of this writing, Clem is back in Michigan to be near family, and retired from entertaining.

Update: Johnny Clem passed away June 3, 2018.

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Notes

  1. John Clem interviewed by Craig Maki in January 2016.
  2. Many nightclub owners booked extended contracts with bands for weeks of steady entertainment.

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.

Part 3: Mr. Juke Box

Originally from Middle Tennessee, Ralph Davis and his brothers played music in Detroit, Michigan, during the early-to-mid 1950s. In 1957, they cut a record for Jack Brown’s Hi-Q label. Then he headed south. Click here to view part two.

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Ralph DavisSoon after moving to Nashville, Tennessee, from Michigan during the winter of 1958, Ralph Davis and his brothers Ken and Guy rustled up some gigs playing music in the city’s active night club scene.

I had to get a job when I went down there – something to do besides the music. I got a job in a print shop. Then I started writing songs, and hanging around Tootsie’s. I met a lot of people there. … Next thing I knew, I had [a song on] an Ernest Tubb record.

Ralph Davis worked with bandleader “Big Jeff” (Grover Franklin Bess) and his Radio Playboys for a while. At that time, Big Jeff and his wife, Tootsie, owned the famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway, a hangout for musicians who worked the “Opry” stage at the Ryman Auditorium, which was located near a back door to the club.

“Tommy Hill was a great influence on me,” said Davis. “He liked some of the songs I’d written, so I made a demo at Starday [Recording Studio]. They started getting some of them recorded [by] Archie Campbell, Roy Drusky … Then Tommy asked me once if I’d fill in for him at the “Opry.” He was a rhythm [guitar] player. I said, ‘Sure, man!’ I got to know all the acts down there. When Tommy decided he didn’t want to play [on a particular night], I’d go take his place.

“One day he told me, ‘I’m gonna quit. Do you want the job?’ I said, ‘You bet I do.’ This was, like, 1960. I talked with the manager and he said, ‘Yeah, as far as I’m concerned.’ It wasn’t really called a ‘staff band’ at that time. It [depended on] the artists who wanted to use you. That went on until about ’68. And I worked the road some with Roy Drusky, Dale Wood and Jean Shepard. But then one day they called [the musicians] in and told us they were making a staff band, and they were just gonna keep so many of us to play. Me and my brother [Guy] were included in it. Hal Love, Billy Linneman, Junior Husky, Pete Drake, [Jimmy] ‘Spider’ Wilson … there were ten of us that was kept there. We stayed there for the next forty years,” he said.[1]

Waycross County by Ralph Davis on Nashville Records

His window on the music scene

In 1962, Davis got in on the ground floor of the Window Music Publishing Company, operated by steel guitarist Pete Drake, Starday Records producer Tommy Hill, and others. In 1963, Starday Records subsidiary Nashville issued a single (no. 5142) by Davis himself. In “Waycross County” Davis sang a story about a heartbroken Southern man living far away from home, which seemed a popular theme at the time as Bobby Bare scored a big hit with “Detroit City” that year. Also that year, Ernest Tubb scored a Top 20 hit with Davis’s “Mr. Juke Box.” “That was the biggest that I ever wrote,” said Davis. Another notable song was “The Fool’s Side of Town,” which Archie Campbell cut in 1962. “We had a lot of success with Window,” he said.

Glen Davis, another brother, played drums for George Jones for several years during the 1960s. He joined the Jones Boys road band and played on recording sessions.

Davis produced the first recordings by the Bobby Harden Trio. “Bobby Harden and I wrote ‘Poor Boy’ [1965]. I produced Bobby on Starday for a while,” said Davis. “He had some single records out after his sisters retired [in 1967, replaced by Onie Wheeler’s daughter Karen, and Shirley Michaels]. We wrote ‘Too Cold At Home’ and we cut the demo at my studio. My son [Danny] cut it before Mark Chesnutt did [in 1990], but we never did get it out.” Davis also produced solo work by Karen Wheeler.

His son Danny, also known as “Double D,” first appeared on the “Opry” in 1968 when he was five years old, playing drums with Billy Grammer. He started playing bass regularly on the program around 1981, and worked jobs with the likes of Porter Wagoner, Merle Haggard, Skeeter Davis, George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Ray Price.[2]

1999 marked the end of an era at the “Grand Ole Opry,” when management asked most of the regular musicians to retire. After forty years, Davis left the stage of the “Opry” for the last time. “I got to work with some great people,” he said. “It was my desire, when I was young, growing up on the little farm over here. We had a battery-operated radio and I’d listen to the ‘Opry’ every Saturday night.” A decade after leaving the Opry, Ralph Davis passed away in Waynesboro, Tennessee, on October 29, 2010.

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Notes

  1. Ralph Davis interviewed by Keith Cady in 2003.
  2. Russ Corey. “Davis not looking to be big star, just a musician.” http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20080110/NEWS/801100303?Title=Davis-not-looking-to-be-big-star-just-a-musician (Retrieved 2011)
    Anita Miller. “Wayne County Music History: Danny Davis.” http://validitymag.com/2014/04/wayne-county-music-history-danny-davis/ (Retrieved 2017)

Part 2: Titus Brothers and Fortune Records

Originally from Middle Tennessee, Ralph Davis and his brothers played music in Detroit, Michigan, during the early-to-mid 1950s. In 1957, they cut a record for Jack Brown’s Hi-Q label. As winter 1958 progressed, Davis made a decision that changed the direction of his life. Click here to view part one.

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As Ralph Davis was stationed in Missouri with the army, playing western swing with a ten-piece band nightly, his brother Kenny stayed active in Detroit, playing fiddle with Bud Titus and his brothers Bob and Bill on the west side of town.

Originally from Central Lake (northeast of Traverse City), Michigan, the Titus brothers performed as the Rocky Mountaineers at community parties, theaters, and benefits, during the late 1940s. Barely grown into their teens, they appeared as a main act on the “Boardman Valley Barn Dance” broadcast by WTCM radio in Traverse City, in 1949. A year later, the brothers moved to Garden City (west of Detroit), Michigan.[1]

Titus Brothers
Bud Titus and the Titus Brothers, 1957. From left: Bob Titus (bass), Kenny Davis (fiddle), Bud Titus (vocal, rhythm guitar), Bill Titus (electric guitar), Gene Johnson (steel guitar).[6] Source: Keith Cady, courtesy Bob Titus
During 1956, the Titus Brothers appeared on TV and radio in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Possibly at the invitation of Sage & Sand Records producer Pat Nelson, who worked with many Detroit-based artists, in spring 1957 Bud took two self-penned songs to Cincinnati, Ohio, and cut them with guitarist Bobby Bobo. A musician on WLW radio’s “Midwestern Hayride,” Bobo played some slick Chet Atkins-styled finger picking at the session, which added to the record’s appeal (it’s still one of the more popular reissues from the Sage & Sand catalog). The songs “Tomorrow” and “Hocus Pocus” appeared on the Sage label (Sage 244) in June. “Tomorrow” attracted spins from regional disk jockeys, but all three Titus Brothers kept their day jobs, and promoted the single mostly within the Detroit area.[2]

Western Rhythm Boys

A few weeks after the release of Bud Titus’ Sage record, Ralph Davis returned to Michigan and started a new group he called the Western Rhythm Boys. “There was me, Guy [Davis], and Kenny [Davis], and Chuck Burak playing steel,” said Davis.[3] “He had a steel, and he put pedals on it with coat hangers. He worked on it all the time. [laughs] … A guy by the name of Buddy played the lead guitar … We had a little drummer named Dean Finney. He lived in Ypsilanti. … We played a little place up in Ann Arbor. I can’t remember the name of it. A nice lady owned it, and we played there on Sunday nights.

“I was working out at Shelden Hall [on Plymouth Road in Livonia, located where a shopping center now stands, near Shelden Park]. Tracey White used to own that little hall. … It was a barn-looking place. Real authentic-looking. … We leased that place from him. It was packed on the weekends! We stayed there for two or three years, I guess. I used to live down the street, not too far from there,” he said.[4]

Besides working Shelden Hall on weekends, Davis and the group volunteered to entertain the ill and infirm. A January 1958 feature on teen-aged singer Joannie King in Teen Life magazine mentioned she sang with the Ralph Davis band at Detroit area hospitals.[5]

A Hi-Q disk

Searching For You by Ralph Davis and the Western Rhythm BoysDuring late 1957, Davis cut two original songs for Jack Brown of Fortune Records in Detroit. “There was a guy up there at Shelden Hall, just hanging around. He came up to me and asked if I’d like to make a record. I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Well, I got some pull over there at Fortune Records.’ So he told them. I went over there and talked with them, sang with a guitar. And they decided, if I’d get the right songs … you know,” he said.

“They wanted to do it in that little studio [on Third Street], and I didn’t want to. I said I’d rather do it in a better place. … I cut that at a little studio on Cass [Avenue], upstairs. It was a pretty good sound, for those days.” Issued on Brown’s Hi-Q label, “Searching For You” backed with “Undecided Heart” featured bass, drums, steel guitar, fiddle, and Davis’ vocal and rhythm guitar. “That’s all I played back then,” he said. “That’s all I’ve ever played, mountain guitar. I play a little banjo and mandolin, but not enough to amount to anything. … My brother Kenny, he’s a great musician. A great mandolin player. … He played fiddle fluently, and he plays a great guitar. He bought his first guitar in Detroit. He had an old electric Gibson, but he bought a Fender Stratocaster, and he still plays it.”

The record benefitted from the quality production Davis sought at the other studio. Unlike many sessions cut at the Fortune Records building, a sound engineer at the studio on Cass mixed the instruments with a pleasant balance. “Undecided Heart” came off like a Hank Thompson performance with a rock’n’roll backbeat. “It wasn’t no hit, but we got a lot of work out of it,” he said. “I took it down to Nashville with me.”

Davis continued: “One night we was working this club in Ann Arbor, I’ll never forget it. I had an old ’53 Buick, and it had those fluid [electric] windows in it, and somebody rolled one down behind, and we couldn’t get it up. Boy, I was freezing! On the way home, Marty [Robbins] was singing on the radio. We had tuned in WSM (I always listened). I told Kenny, ‘Do you know what I’m gonna do?’ And he said, ‘Nah.’ I said, ‘I’m going back to Nashville.’ He said, ‘What for?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna get on the Opry.’ And he just laughed, ‘Oh yeah?’ I said, ‘Yeah. In two weeks, I’m leaving.’ And so I did. I went out there and gave them my notice, and you know what? He left before I did!”

Next week! Ralph Davis, Part Three — Mr. Juke Box

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Notes

  1. Bob Titus shared with Keith Cady a variety of newspaper clippings from a family scrapbook that documented the Rocky Mountaineers and Titus Brothers bands.
  2. “Titus Boys’ Recording Tops Local ‘Country’ Hit Parade” Automatic Transmission News. (July, 1957) 4. Published by Ford Motor Company, out of the Livonia Transmission Plant.
  3. Ralph Davis interviewed by Keith Cady in 2003.
  4. Davis said the owner of Shelden Hall was a man named Tracey White, but not the Detroit guitarist of the same name.
  5. Effie Burrus. “Personable Joannie King Visits Teen Life Editor” Teen Life. (Jan. 6, 1958. Vol. 3, No. 1) 5. King recorded a single for Sand Records (a Sage and Sand label) at the end of 1957 (“OK Doll” b/w “History” Sand no. 258). Davis and his band did not play on it.
  6. According to Keith Cady, Gene Johnson was a member of Roy Acuff’s Smokey Mountain Boys during the 1930s, and a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He played steel guitar through the early 2000s.

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