Daddy' Fisher, like fellow Johnny Carroll, deserved
the tag of 'Wild Man From Texas' ; he was the first true rockabilly artist to
ever be signed to Starday Records in 1955. He became a legend in Europe and
when he invaded the Continent in the early '80s, he proved that he could still
tear it up. Here's the complete story... from Starday to Big Beat !
1981. Black hair combed
backwards, long sideburns, red shirt and guitar in hand, Sonny Fisher sure
looked every bit as young and menacing as he did twenty five years before
when he used to tear the place apart in and around Houston, Texas, with
his Rocking Boys. Better yet, his passion for Rockabilly and his voice were
intact. True, he had preserved the latter for a number of years spent in
the floor business but how happy was he to unleash it again in front of
appreciative audiences who couldn't get enough of his legendary Starday
cuts ! Sonny Fisher's original '50s records had long been very highly prized
by the French (and European) rockabilly community : indeed, among the pseudonyms
commonly used by those greasy Cats, you could find 'Rockin' Daddies' and
'Ding Dongs' aplenty !
'Sonny' Fisher was born on November 13, 1931, on a
farm close to Chandler (Texas), a few miles from Tyler where he was raised.
After stints in California and the Northwest, Sonny came back to Houston
in 1949. His interest in music came from his father, who used to play guitar
and sing cowboy songs ; however, that interest developed on a greater scale
when he heard Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams on the radio. Around
the time of his first marriage (1951), Sonny put a Hillbilly band together
with Red Leonie on steel guitar and a fiddler named Paul Vaughan who had
played with another important Texan musician/songwriter, Red Hayes. They
were soon joined by drummer Darrell Newsome and bass slapper Leonard Curry.
The band began playing in nightclubs in the Houston area and, not surprisingly
given the rich local musical scene, they began to incorporate more and more
Rhythm'n'Blues into their act - especially after guitarist Joey Long came
on board. In an interview given to Bill Millar and Ray Topping in May 1979
(printed in UK mag, New Kommotion # 25), Sonny recalled that they were deeply
influenced by Joe Turner, Fats Domino and B. B. King. In the latter part
of 1954, the Southern States were rapidly shaken up by a newcomer named Elvis
Presley and Sonny was one of a long list of young aspiring musicians to be knocked
out by Elvis's sound - to the extent of thinking he was black. When Presley
played the Texas Korral in Houston, Sonny went to hear and see him. In fact, Fisher, like Elvis and Carl Perkins, was one of the true early
rockabillies : they were all plowing the same musical field at roughly the
same time but Elvis crystallized the whole thing with 'That's All Right'
and his other timeless Sun cuts.
From then on, Sonny didn't look back. His band was now comprised of Joey Long, Leonard Curry and Darrell Newsome only and was baptized 'The Rocking Boys'. While playing the Cosy Corner nightclub in Houston, they were spotted by club owner, Jack Starnes, who also happened to be one of the bosses at Starday Records. Starnes persuaded Sonny to sign with them : a one-year contract ensued. The first recording session took place in early January 1955 at Bill Quinn's Goldstar Studio in Houston. Four titles were cut, notably 'Rockin' Daddy' and 'Hold Me Baby' which became both sides of Sonny's very first record (Starday179). Man, what a disc ! The medium paced top side starts with a growling lead guitar intro, then Sonny's youthful voice takes control of the song over a huge, relentless slappin' bass beat, until drum rolls signal the arrival of Joey Long's powerful soli. Joey finishes the track by borrowing from Scotty Moore's breaks in Presley's 'Blue Moon Of Kentucky'. He was an exceptional player - he could be silent for a few seconds, then his strident, unusual licks would leap at your face ! In '79, Sonny explained to Millar & Topping that Long 'did some special kind of things : he played the guitar one-handed without strumming the strings at all, one finger on the string and make it twang ; he'd make that thing talk by keeping the strings down with one hand'. In his book, 'Sun Records' (Quick Fox, NY ; 1980), Colin Escott best summed it up by writing that 'Joey Long, whatever his stylistic influences, succeeded in producing music with perhaps greater affinity for the down home blues tradition than even Carl Perkins' : this is amply demonstrated in the bluesier 'Hold Me Baby'. It is unclear whether 'Rockin' Daddy' was inspired by Hoyle Nix & The West Texas Cowboys' own 'Real Rockin' Daddy' (Queen 149) but it sure made some noise in Texas, becoming a classic in the process ; in 1956, Eddie Bond cut the most successful version on Mercury (# 70826) : he would attempt it again at Sun (in 1962) and at Tab (# 677) in the '70s.
According to Sonny, there are better takes of 'Rockin' Daddy' in the Starday vaults - but they have yet to be unearthed, at least legally. Sonny apparently wasn't too happy with the way Jack Starnes handled his releases. A second single (#190) was issued during the Spring of '55, coupling 'Hey Mama' and 'Sneaky Pete', the two remaining tapes from Fisher's first session - and two belters, featuring their share of impressive guitar breaks from Joey Long (there are three of'em in 'Hey Mama' !) and more good, controlled vocals from Sonny (with a reference to 'Hound Dog' in 'Sneaky Pete').
Sonny's first two records were really a cross between Elvis' and Carl Perkins' Sun work. Even by Starday's high standards, they were quite different (read : more progressive) than everything else on the label. They allowed him to appear in more famous Texas clubs such as The Magnolia Gardens and Eagle's Hall (both in Houston) or The Sportsman Auditorium (Beaumont). Elvis played gigs in Houston with Scotty & Bill around the time of Fisher's second Starday outing ; that's probably on that occasion that Elvis, impressed by Sonny's act, borrowed drummer Darrell Newsome from Sonny to augment his band while playing at the Cosy Corner. Shortly afterwards, Elvis recruited DJ Fontana on a permanent basis.
Two more recording sessions took place at Quinn's Goldstar Studio in late 1955. By that time, and largely thanks to Pappy Daily, the studio had moved to Brock Street and featured up-to-date facilities, including separate booths and control board equipment with the now famous slap back echo. Sonny had to sing without his acoustic guitar in his booth : another great Sonny would come in to play rhythm - Sonny Burns. 'Rockin' & A Rollin' and 'I Can't Lose' (Starday # 207) resulted from Fisher's second studio date and were much in the same exciting mold as the previous cuts ; Joey Long's intro to the irresistible 'I Can't Lose' has to be one of the most strident ever ! The third session produced another top quality single (# 244). 'Pink & Black' rocks like the devil after a jivin' intro on cymbals, bass & guitar ; the drums are more prominent and there's a sort of Bill Haley feel at times (even in Joey's first solo). The flip, 'Little Red Wagon', is unlike anything Sonny had done previously ; probably inspired by Hank Penny's 'Won't You Ride In My Little Red Wagon', it rocks with a Western swing flavor, Sonny's vocal is more relaxed and Joey's guitar break is more melodious without losing any power (in short, kinda like Jimmy Bryant, Texas style !). The editor of 'Country'n'Western Jamboree', with things clearly getting too much for him, offered this review of Sonny's latest single in the September 1956 issue of the mag : 'The 'Wagon' side is unfortunately titled, for there was a smash success of years ago with almost the same title. This side has a very bad chance to the first tune of almost the same title. 'Pink & Black' is a rocking number, on the R'n'R kick, and shows a driving band, but Fisher shows little.'
It should be noted that this last session was a split one with singer Fred Crawford who seized the opportunity to cut his best rocker, the piano-based 'Rock Candy Rock' (Starday # 243), with Joey Long providing the lead guitar work. Fisher's and Crawford's '45s were issued in June 1956, at a time when Starday had definitely jumped on the Rock'n'Roll bandwagon with an avalanche of sumptuous records by Thumper Jones, Link Davis, Rock Rogers, Rudy Grayzell, Bill Mack, Bob Doss and Glen Barber. [A more complete overview of the Starday label will appear at a later date on this same website.] Speaking of Bob Doss, Sonny recalled singing harmony with him on one disc but couldn't tell on what label it was ; as far as I know, Doss cut one lone '45 on Starday (# 265, 'Don't Be Gone Long' b/w 'Somebody's Knocking') but there's a Bobby Doss who cut 'I've Got You (Where I Want You) b/w 'Don't Say Goodbye' on Lynn 505 that we'll have to investigate.
Although Starnes and Daily were willing to have Sonny resign for a two-year contract, he didn't : the meager royalty check for $126 he got from them for global record sales put him off. In 1957, along with drummer Darrell Newsome, he decided to set up a record label, Columbus Records, and a publishing company, New-Fish Music. By that time, Joey Long had left Sonny's band to be replaced by Eddie Eddings. Singer/guitarist Eddie Eddings had also had a Starday release, backed by The Country Gentlemen - a glorious hillbilly bopper titled 'Smoochin' in 1954 (# 163 ; flip side, 'Yearning To Kiss You'). Two other cuts from his Starday session ('Country Style Boogie' and 'Country Medley') were published on a transcription 10'' LP for DJ's (#103), along with recordings by Al Petty, Dick Stubbs and The Western Cherokees. Several years later, 'Country Style Boogie' re-appeared as 'Country Boogie' on the excellent 'Tennessee Guitar' - SLP 176 - which also included great tracks by Hardrock Gunter and Jimmy Capps & Billy Byrd among others, and on the sampler EP (#207) taken from the album. 'Country Boogie' is a furious instrumental in which Eddings and his steel player cut loose like there was no tomorrow ! On Columbus, Sonny Fisher produced one single for Eddie, 'The Same Old Situation' b/w 'Just A Friend Of Mine' (# 102). Looking at the record label, we learn that the offices were located at 1701 Clinton Road in Galena Park, Texas, and that Eddy (sic) was accompanied by the Columbus Orchestra. Saxophonist Hub Sutter, an old Link Davis cohort, played on that disc and cut the next '45 on the label, a real rocker titled 'Gone Goslin' (# 103 ; flip side 'I Don't Want My Baby Back'). It proved to be the swan song for the company which Sonny eventually sold out to Newsome. When Eddings left, Fisher organized a new band ; it was racially mixed (apart from Sonny, all the other members were black) and concentrated on Rhythm'n'Blues stuff (Ray Charles, Brook Benton...). That would be a short-lived experience and Sonny soon returned to Country Music. He kept on playing in Houston clubs up until 1965 ; he then threw in the sponge and decided to work full time in his floor laying business.
London, 1979. Hey Cats, Sonny Fisher's in town, no kidding ! Ted Carroll and Ray Topping had just launched what would soon become the UK's best reissue label when they discovered Sonny in Crosby, Texas. They persuaded him to come over to England to play a few dates : Rockabilly had (at long last !) become the 'new rage' at the time and the reception was ecstatic. So much so that Ace leased Sonny's eight Starday masters and issued one of their best ever 10" LPs in 1980, 'Texas Rockabilly' (10 CH 14) - complete with old style brown paper inner sleeve ! Such a beauty deserved to sell well and it did. However, it's now obvious that they didn't work from the original master tapes : original records were used instead but sound engineer Bob Jones did a great job which more than satisfied our ears in that not-too-audiophile era. Let's hope that those original masters can be found when Sonny's entire work is digitized. To tie in with that release, Ace put out a 45 rpm with 'Pink & Black' on one side and 'Sneaky Pete' on the other. Real neat.
For his UK shows, Sonny was backed up by a Scottish band, Johnny & The Roccos. In May 1980, they all went into the studio and Ace issued Fisher's first record in almost 25 years ! It was a 4-song EP, with 'Mathilda' proving to be the 'hit'. All that turmoil quickly reached the French shores ; that same year, Sonny gave a memorable concert in Lille. He came back over in 1981 for a series of shows, notably in Paris where he shared the bill with Eddie Fontaine and Gene Summers. On April 13 & 14, 1981, he was at Studio Davout where he cut the first real album of his career - 'Texas Rockabilly Tear Up', another ten incher - on Jacky Chalard's Big Beat label. This time, he was surrounded by French musicians only and we've got to admit that they did one fantastic job. The band was comprised of Jacky Chalard (producer & bass player), Patrick Verbeke & Patrick Lozach (guitars) and Christophe Deschamps (drums), with Jacky Guérard (piano) and Mick Picard (tenor sax) appearing on a few tracks. Two days of recording is a bit short and might lead us to believe that it was a hurried affair : such was not the case ! Sonny had written eight new songs and since he'd got the right band, he could go ahead serenely : 'Sweet Sixteen', 'Rockabilly Tonight', 'Shake It Around' and 'I'm Flyin' In' (with sax) were especially good. However, the two best cuts on the album were his cover of Willie Nelson's 'On The Road Again' and his scintillating rendition of Eddie Rabbitt's 'Drivin' My Life Away' which was selected for single release. The only fish out of the water was his pedestrian tribute to Elvis.
In June 1981, Sonny was back in Paris for a Rockabilly Festival which also starred Jack Scott (headliner), Gene Summers and Billy Hancock among others. He was featured in a French TV show, 'Bop 'n' Roll Party' (whose soundtrack later appeared on a Big Beat LP) and played other dates in France in October '81 ; then, he got back to Texas. In 1982, Big Beat Magazine devoted several pages to that great Artist in its last issue (# 21) [France's Big Beat Magazine should be remembered as one of the best professionally printed R'n'R mags ever, its first issue dating back to 1969]. I had initially written that 'the sad news is that we haven't heard from him again since then' but fan & collector, Ralph Van Beuningen, justly corrected me in saying that Sonny shared the stage of the Eindhoven Rock'n'Roll Meeting in October 1983 with The Paladins, The Dazzlers and Red Hot Max.
Two years later, UK's Ace Records released a 78 rpm featuring 'Rockin' Daddy' and 'I Can't Lose' - just like in the good ol' days.
Whatever happened afterwards, Sonny proved that 'old rockabillies never die'. He could be proud of his second career in Europe and must have been proud of his Starday legacy which will forever rank alongside Presley's and Perkins' Sun classics as some of the earliest and most authentic recorded pieces of Rockabilly. He was indeed at the very start of a musical revolution and his contribution shouldn't be overlooked.
Postscript 1 : Sadly, Sonny Fisher died in Houston on October 8, 2005, from yet unknown causes.
Postscript 2 : In August 2006, Leonard Curry, Sonny's original bass player, contacted me and e-mailed me some thoughts from his early days as a Rocking Boy along with this exclusive pic. Enjoy !
'There was a place called Dude's Place in Northeast Houston that was basically a beer joint. On Sunday afternoon, jam sessions were allowed. That's where any musican could bring or borrow an axe and sit in. That is where I met Joey Long ; that is his stage name, real name Joseph Longoria, nickname Nook, from around Zawalie Louisiana. He and I met as well as a lot of other folks that loved music, and being addicted to it, had a wonderful time.
It soon developed that some of the Rocking Boys started. I played guitar, not lead, don't have the talent for that, and sang mostly all current Country songs, Hank Williams, Hank Thompson, Ernest Tubb and mostly anything we could carry a note to. Soon Darrel Newsome showed up playing the drums. I got ahold of a standup bass fiddle ; I had learned to play while in the Service in Germany.
As soon as Little Red Leone graduated from High School in Zawalie, Joey went after him and the Rocking Boys were started. Now that was the group, but we were not named at that time, only after the recording did we choose the Rocking Boys name.
Somewhere along the line, Sonny Fisher came along and started playing with us. He had a very good voice and was a lot of fun. He was married, or should I say, his wife was. Sonny charmed the girls. He always dressed up like a star. I suppose you could call him good looking. Your have to remember all this happened in a very short period of time. I cannot recall the exact time we recorded 'Rocking Daddy', but it was around1954-1955 at the latest.
Joey, Darrell, Red and myself
were booked in the Ace of Clubs in South Houston, near Ellington Air Force
Base. We started as a secondary band and played week nights as there was
a weekend band already in place.
Our style : we learned the very latest Country songs as soon as they came out. We quickley started having large crowds during the week and soon got the gig for seven nights a week, with jam sessions on Sunday afternoons. We added fiddle players and saxophones on weekends and had more fun than the law allowed. After we built the place up to capacity on Thursdays thru the weekend, we felt like we deserved a small raise which was denided. We made eight dollars plus the kitty. The owner would not give the raise, Darrell quit and that was the slow demise of the Rocking Boys as a unit. We all started working in different places with different bands.
Getting back to Sonny. Before
all this happened, we appeared in Beaumont,Tx, at the Sportatormin. The
place was great. There was a musician named Arlie Duff who had recorded
'Y'all Come'. We appeared around the same time. There
have been stories about Darrell playing at Magnolia Gardens and Elvis appeared
there with no band or no drummer and Darrell sit in for him. I cannot confirm
or deny this, but I suppose it is feasible. I was on my own and didn't keep
up on the day to day events of all the other members.
I played a sit down job of my own at a club for six months, as my day job played out until I went honest and started working for the SP Railroad, a job I had until 1995 when I retired.
I know this is
a little rambling, but one thing I should say is, when we recorded 'Rocking
Daddy', it was the first Fisher song with a B-side I cannot remember. The
rest of the recordings came later, after not much practice, just a couple
of beers and we were ready to go, ha ! Bob Doss, who used to sit in as a
guest, now lives in Fallon, Nevada. I haven’t seen or talked to him
in years ; we used to be best friends, but as you know, time changes everything.
[...] We suffered a flood at my house in 1994 and lost a lot of great pictures. By the way, in about 1958 I started playing drums as smaller bands were in greater demand and the bass was omitted for drums. I only played drums on one record that was written by Willie Nelson but he sold it to Claude Gray for fifty dollars. Times were hard for Willie in those early days. The name of the song was 'Family Bible'.
[...] I have to tell you that I played drums one New Year's night with Glenn Barber and a girl playing open string guitar. The three of us played for a portion of the door and made the most money I ever got for a one night stand. If I remember correctly, it was around $70 each !'
Many thanks for the memories, Leonard.