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The great Jimmie Skinner.The well-known music historian, Colin Escott, once wrote that 'there are simply very few originals in American Music'. I can't understand why someone like Mr. Escott feels the need to resort to such sledgehammer sentences but I sure don't agree: not only are there dozens of originals, but there are also hundreds of stylists. The late Jimmie Skinner sure was one of them.

Jimmie was born April 27, 1909 on a farm near Berea, Kentucky. Famous for its college, Berea's other claim to fame is for being the birthplace of another pair of excellent singers : the well-known Red Foley and the more obscure Ernie Lee, once star of the WLW radio & TV stations in Cincinnati and whose RCA Victor and subsequent Mercury sides were consistently fine (check out 'Headin' Home To Old Kentucky' RCA 48-0182 and the bluesy, western-swing styled & mandolin-backed 'I'm A Lonesome Man' RCA 48-0341 for aural proof).
Jimmie learned music from his father and had the good fortune to be exposed to both country music and blues early on. He moved to southwestern Ohio (the city of Hamilton to be precise) as a youth and worked as a part-time performer until after World War II. Sides cut for Gennett in the early 1930's were never released and some ten years later, a contract with RCA Victor yielded no recordings. Meanwhile, Jimmie got increasingly busy performing on radio - both in Ohio and at WHTN in Huntington, West Virginia.

He had to wait until about 1946 to see his first released sides on an independent label - Red Barn Record Co. out of Kansas City, Missouri. How many artists did record for that small company, I don't know but a certain Elmo Linn had four releases there while Bobby Dick, Byron Parker and Kentucky Jess & Neal Burris all had one. Jimmie was already writing (or co-writing) most of his material. One of his songs
, 'Will You Be Satisfied That Way', became a hit in Knoxville and led to his doing live radio work there for a while ; another Red Barn recording, 'Let's Say Goodbye Like We Said Hello', was picked up by Ernest Tubb who had a huge hit with it in 1949 (Decca 46144 - the other side being 'Have You Ever Been Lonely', later cut by Buddy Holly and released posthumously on the 'Giant' LP).
In his liner notes to Bear Family's 1988 compilation of some of Skinner's Mercury stuff ('Another Saturday Night', BFX 15266), writer Otto Kittsinger recounts how Jimmie himself used to distribute his Red Barn '78s through the post - an awful lot of them breaking in the process (what a pity for us, poor collecting hounds !). Some time later, Jimmie and another person took over Cincinnati's Radio Artist label ('Your Radio Friends On Records') - home of Dolly Good, Barefoot Brownie Reynolds and The Turner Brothers among others. Such classic songs as 'Don't Give Your Heart To A Rambler', 'On The Wrong Side Of The Tracks' and 'You Don't Know My Mind' date back to that period ; however, many Radio Artist recordings were remakes of previous Red Barn masters - like the marvelous, banjo-laden 'Doin' My Time'. Another important side of Jimmie's career was his association with Lou Epstein around that time and the opening of the renowned Jimmie Skinner Music Center in downtown Cincinnati ; the store specialized in the shipment of Country'n'Western records by mail order throughout the world. Soon afterwards, Jimmie had a daily radio show on WNOP out of Newport, Kentucky ; the show was conducted every morning from the store, which was packed with visitors coming in from every state in the Union and from many of the Canadian provinces as well. Singer/musician/producer Rusty York - who had discovered Jimmie Skinner's music through his Radio Artist version of Jimmy Work's standard, 'Tennessee Border', which he first heard on the 'Jamboree' radio show on WCKY in Cincinnati - later got a job doing the engineering for Skinner's radio show from the window of the Center on Fifth Street across the Greyhound bus station.

Jimmie & Connie Hall just outside the J. S. Music Center in Cincinnati.Those Radio Artist releases definitely put Jimmie on the map for, in 1950, he was offered contracts by most of the major labels in rapid succession. He chose to sign with Capitol Records, who were building quite a strong hillbilly roster then. Fifteen singles were put out over a three-year period and despite the lack of any significant hit, Jimmie Skinner's reputation was growing up fast. It seems incredible that Capitol never bothered to issue one or two LPs' worth of Jimmie's songs for the label for they are absolutely brilliant ; the original Capitol singles are exceedingly rare today and the only way to have half of them on album is to find the ancient German compilation, 'Hillbilly Memories', on the Barnyard label. These sides are uncompromising ; Neil Davies, in issue # 6 of UK's 'Hillbilly Researcher', wrote that the material even displays 'a certain hypnotic quality' - which is true. Jimmie's low-pitched, downhome baritone vocals combined with Ray Lunsford's effective electric mandolin playing over a sparse backing of guitars (including Skinner's acoustic rhythm), fiddle and bull fiddle, paint the scenery for real Country Music. Outstanding songs from that period include 'Falling Rain Blues' (a March 1951 release), 'Women Beware', 'Kentucky & You', 'It's Bargain Day' (released in May 1951), 'There's Nothin' About You Special', 'By Degrees' (his last Capitol in 1953) and the tribute to Hank Williams, 'Singing Teacher In Heaven'. A high percentage of his recordings for Glenn Wallichs's label were personal compositions of course, with occasional collaborations from Ray Lunsford ('Tell Them') or several female writers : Charlotte Bogart, Betty Buchanan and Kathy Wood. A couple of songs were borrowed from Hank Williams (for example, 'When The Book Of LIfe Is Read'). At a 1951 session, Jimmie also cut Ernest Tubb's 'Journey 's End' and a very good version of Johnny & Jack's 'I Can't Tell My Heart That' at waltz tempo. In the end, I think that Jimmie's Capitol output best displays his feeling for the blues : bit like a Hillbilly Lightnin' Hopkins !

When the contract with Capitol expired, Jimmie signed with Decca ; he stayed there from 1953 to 1955. Six singles saw release but, like the Capitol records, sales were probably more regional than national, thus preventing Skinner to score 'big hits'. Likewise, his material was as distinctive as ever and songs such as 'I'm Allergic To Your Kisses' (another Skinner/Lunsford collaboration), its flip, 'Baby I Could Change My Ways' (co-written with Cotton Carrier, the longtime Country DJ who would pen 'Gotta Lotta Love' for Texas Bill Strength on Capitol in 1956), 'What A Pleasure' or the rompin' Gospel Bluegrass of 'Jesus Loves All' (complete with a neat Joe Maphis-styled guitar solo) are pure Skinner classics. It took Decca only six years to eventually compile Jimmie's twelve sides onto an album, 'Country Singer' (DL 4132). Other than the four aforementioned tracks, fans who had missed the singles first time around had the pleasure to listen to Jimmie's treatment of Duke Ellington's 'Don't Get Around Much Anymore' and, most of all, of Eddie Noack's signature number, 'Too Hot To Handle' ; coming from a February 1, 1954 session and again propelled by Lunsford's mandolin, the latter is totally exquisite, so much so that I think only Sonny Burns's atmospheric version (issued on Starday 118 in December 1953) can rival Jimmie's interpretation. Three songs (including the bopper, 'My Broken Heart Is Startin' To Show') were co-authored by Skinner and a guy by the name of Bob Mooney : wonder if he was one of his musicians at the time. Also on board was a recut of 'Don't Give Your Heart To A Rambler' and what is without a doubt one of Jimmie's finest compositions, a haunting piece of poetry wisely titled 'Beautiful'.

Ray Lunsford's Sage EP.Ray Lunsford's contribution to the early Jimmie Skinner sound should be acknowledged on a higher level ; he was to Skinner what Luther Perkins was to Johnny Cash - another way to measure the influence of the former on the latter. Ray never strayed far from the melody line and rarely launched into furious soli, but his playing was pleasant and complemented Skinner's vocals to perfection. Around the mid-fifties, Lunsford had three instrumental singles on the Excellent label - one of which, coupling 'Carroll County Blues' and 'Mt. Vernon Rag', was eventually picked up by Starday and issued as # 296 in mid-1957. A lesser-known item by Ray Lunsford is an extended-play record on Sage Records (EP 285) ; Ray is dubbed as 'King Of The Electric Mandolin' and plays four tunes - 'I Don't Love Nobody', 'Rustic Dance', a very good 'Red Wing' and 'Pickin' Around', penned by Lunsford with Estel Lee Scarbrough

In late 1955, Skinner moved to Mercury Records ; by that time, Johnny Cash had appeared on the scene, already making great strides with 'Cry, Cry, Cry' (Sun 221) and 'Folsom Prison Blues' (Sun 232) : the immortal 'I Walk The Line' was only a few months away from being recorded and released. Jimmie's first single for the new label coupled 'Steppin' Out On You' with 'Want You For My Baby', a superior bopper with mandolin and fiddle breaks. Another double-sided gem was the coupling of the slappin' 'Just Ramblin' On' (with train whistle intro) with the lovely, well-constructed 'Another Saturday Night'. But 1956 was definitely a year of huge changes ! It wasn't long before Jimmie mentioned Elvis Presley in one of his songs ('Hafta Do Somethin' 'Bout That', released on July 15, 1957) and emulated Cash in a couple of others, notably 'Where My Sweet Baby Goes' where a raunchy, twangy guitar backing replaced Lunsford's mandolin to good effect. In between, Jimmie eventually got back into the national charts with 'I Found My Girl In The USA', a sort of answer to a trio of songs, namely 'Fraulein', 'Geisha Girl' and 'Filipino Baby' ; this big hit was cut in Cincinnati with Ray Lunsford and Joe Elliott on lead guitar although by that time, Jimmie had probably already recorded in Nashville studios. Issued on September 10, 1957, 'I Found My Girl In The USA' was backed with Lunsford's own 'Carroll County Blues', probably the same cut as the one we spoke of a few lines above. It should be noted that, in 1957, Jimmie's singles appeared on the Mercury*Starday label since the two companies had inked a promotion deal - one that didn't last too long into 1958 !

© Paul VIDAL * Privas, France * November 2001-January 2006
TO BE CONTINUED SOON ..................................................