WHOP-T-BOP - THE SAMMY MASTERS STORY ON PAUL VIDAL's BIG V JAMBOREE

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WHOP-T-BOP
The SAMMY MASTERS Story


Although Sammy's reputation amongst rockabilly buffs worldwide is mainly based on a couple of singles on the 4-Star label, it sure ain't overrated : his style has never been duplicated and the songs sound even fresher today.
While a retrospective of his career on CD would be most welcome, this summary in words and pictures will hopefully shed some light on another talented artist.


Sammy Masters.Sammy Masters was born in Sasakawa, Oklahoma on July 18, 1930. 'It was a stormy night', he says, 'and since we lived in the remote oil fields, my Dad had to drive into the nearest town to fetch a doctor. By the time they arrived, I was already born !.' He became interested in music when he would go to the Saturday afternoon movies, watching Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and all the other singing cowboys of that time. He also listened to Nashville's Grand Ole Opry on a battery radio his family owned. Of course, one of Sammy's biggest influences was probably Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys - Sammy would listen to their afternoon shows when they performed on radio station KVOO in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
At age 12, he sang live on radio KTUL in Tulsa with Art Davis and His Rhythm Riders, then with one of Bob Wills' brothers, Johnnie Lee Wills, on KVOO : quite a feat already ! Johnnie Lee Wills is well known for his excellent RCA Victor sides cut in 1952-1953 ('Oo Ooh Daddy', 'The Thingamajig' and his version of 'Blackberry Boogie' make for essential listening - if you dig
Speedy West, you'll love Tommy Elliott's powerful steel playing on these sides) and for his later Sims output but Art Davis is more obscure (one of his recordings was 'T-Town Sue' for Jim Beck's Dude label, also released on Bullet). Sammy's family moved to California where he finished High School. That's when he made appearances with Spade Cooley's Band - Spade was signed to RCA Victor at that time. 'I sang with Spade in the late '40s/early '50s for a short time. I then went with Ole Rasmussen and His Nebraska Cornhuskers for about a year and a half.' The latter were another very sophisticated western swing band, much in the Spade Cooley vein, who cut a bunch of notable tunes for Capitol ('Let's Go Fishin', 'Country Wedding Day' and their take on 'C-Jam Blues' come to mind) with a young prodigy named Billy Tonnesen on steel. It is unclear if Sammy ever recorded with them in the studio, though. But Sammy did cut his first solo '78 around 1950 on the Cormac label in Santa Ana - the same label which released Johnny Horton's first two '78s in 1951, before folding. One side of that elusive record, 'Lost Little Nickel', a fine hillbilly swinger with guitar and accordion soli, appeared on a 1998 EccoFonic EP (see 'Discography') which gave both 1953 and 1954 as years of release ; I believe that it was 1950 or so, because the catalog number of Sammy's record (#1171) predates those by Horton. Masters apparently owns the only known copy of the disc !
After High School, Sammy served in the US Army where he did many shows for the troops in Korea. After his Army gig, Sammy came back to California and the serious things began : 'I started out writing and making demos for 4-Star Publishing Co. around 1954 and signed with them shortly after that.'


Sammy & his band.A demo from 1955, titled 'Gone, Man, Gone', made its debut on the aforementioned EccoFonic EP : recorded at the B&B Studios in Hollywood, it's a boogie-styled number with good guitar, piano and steel guitar. It seems that, before moving to the main 4-Star label, Sammy first took advantage of owner Bill Mc Call's custom service series - which was the blueprint for Starday's custom pressings.
4-Star's 'OP' series has been extremely well documented by the Hillbilly Researcher gang in England ; the listing they published in late 1996 is beautifully comprehensive and mentions a release on Calico (# OP-227) by Sammy - coupling 'Yong Tong Foo Chow' with 'The Big Black Sombrero' - dating back to late 1955. I can't comment on it since I've never heard that disc, but the top deck is intriguing !

1956 was the year when it all came together. Bill Mc Call was the head of 4-Star Records in Pasadena, California, and a jack-of-all-trades by all accounts ; but he did record an impressive amount of talent on his revered label - mostly in the Hillbilly, Western Swing and Rockabilly fields. 'Bill Mc Call asked me if I wanted to do some rockabilly and of course, I jumped at the chance' recalls Sammy. From that session, probably held in late 1956, came two grandiose singles (released in rapid succession) that have definitely stood the test of time : four sides which are full of rockabilly's main ingredients and which are yet totally unique, largely thanks to Sammy's interjectional vocal delivery and the presence of Jimmy Bryant whose intricate, fluid, jazzy guitar breaks are as startling as they are uncommon in this style of music. Sammy Masters wrote both 'Pink Cadillac' and 'Whop-T-Bop', co-wrote 'Some Like It Hot' with Tex Atchison and co-penned the funny 'Flat Feet' with Lynn Howard. I'll let Sammy himself give more details about this historic session : 'The studio was located upstairs in the 4-Star building ; the equipment I recorded on was a single track Magnacorder. The recording engineer was Ellery Hern who devised a tape delay echo which he used to a good slap effect on George Tracy's upright bass and a cardboard box drummer Jimmy Randell played brushes on. Jimmy Bryant played lead guitar and Jimmie Widener played rhythm guitar. Jimmy Bryant came up with the arrangements.' On the record label, that group was billed as Sammy's 'Rockin' Rhythm'. Those guys had quite a pedigree ! As we all know, Jimmy Bryant had just been dropped by Capitol Records at that time ; as to Jimmie Widener, he had recorded for a host of labels before that : King, Deluxe, Downbeat, Ace-Hi and also Imperial - where, on March 18,1953, he led a session with accompaniment provided by Billy Liebert & His Orchestra which included Jimmy Bryant on lead and perhaps Speedy West on steel (two singles were issued, Imperial 8187 & 8199, both with Widener's bluesy vocal well in evidence).

The original pressing of 'Pink Cadillac''Pink Cadillac' was coupled with 'Some Like It Hot' (4-Star 1695) and soon began to pick up radio airplay. In early 1957, almost identical versions of both songs were rush released on Modern Records (#1003) and credited to a certain Johnny Todd. In fact, the only difference between the originals and these versions was the addition of real drums (neatly overdubbed, one must admit). Sammy does not recall how the Modern deal came about but thinks that Mc Call hatched it up some way : 'I believe they used my tracks when they put the drums on it. It isn't clear how Modern got my tracks. Bill Mc Call was very clever ; I remember when he tried to give my friend Carl Belew a new Cadillac and a Nudie Rhinestone Cowboy suit if Carl would give him half writer's royalties on 'Lonely street', 'Stop The World And Let Me Off' and 'Am I That Easy To Forget', all of which became super hit songs.'

Another zany rocker was cut during the above session and issued as an alternative flip side to his second outing, 'Whop-T-Bop' (4-Star 1697) : it was called '2-Rock-A-Four'. Sammy believes he wrote it while driving in his car and that it came out of nowhere ; however, I can't help smelling a pun with some famous French cheese !! It should be noted that this song is credited to four composers : Masters, a certain F. Smith and, interestingly enough, Jack Bradshaw and Harry Glenn, the latter being the boss of another important record company, Mar-Vel' Records out of Hammond, Indiana, for which Bradshaw once recorded. That variation of Sammy's second single is very scarce nowadays.
Promoting the records meant spending quite a bit of time on tour : 'Touring in those days was difficult. We encountered agents who would book us and would take the band's pay and leave town. This only happened to me once but I heard many such stories from others'.
There would be a few more sides recorded at 4-Star which appeared on a couple of EPs and on a Decca single. By the end of 1957, his contract with Bill Mc Call's label was up. Sammy kept on writing songs and cutting demos - such as 'Twin Pipes & Pin Stripes', a pounding 'hot rod' rocker with excellent guitar which again saw the light of day on the EccoFonic EP. Next, Sammy went on to work for the Major and Lode labels, both owned by his good friend, singer/songwriter/music publisher Terry Fell (of 'Truck Drivin' Man' fame). In 1959, Sammy had his biggest hit with 'Rockin' Red Wing' (Lode 108) - another song in the 'Kaw-Liga' format but pleasant nonetheless, with nice sax blowing by Bob Williams. Check out the more rockin' alternate version used by EccoFonic on that same - indispensable - EP ! Sammy had previously made appearances on Cliffie Stone's popular 'Hometown Jamboree' TV show and on 'Town Hall Party' but now it was a step higher (in terms of audiences, shall we say) : Dick Clark's 'American Bandstand'. I admit to liking the slow flip to Lode 108, 'Lonely Weekend', better than the top side ; it was arranged by saxman, Bob Williams, and most certainly recorded at Gold Star studios in Hollywood with the late, great Harold 'Mr. Fiddle' Hensley at his sweetest. Alas, Sammy was unable to repeat the success of 'Rockin' Red Wing' (which was picked up by Warner Bros., even got released in England and was covered by Ernie Freeman on Imperial) : subsequent Lode singles went nowhere. One of them (Lode # 114) featured a version of Terry Fell's composition, 'Never', which had previously been recorded - but not issued until 1962 - by Eddie Cochran probably during the sessions for his 'Singin' To My Baby' LP (a super fine performance with plenty of echo and some effective finger snappin'). Sammy's version retained the initial Country flavor of the song. Regarding the Lode label, it seems that it was, at first, distributed by Case Records in Gardena, California ; then, the singles bore the famous '9109 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood' address which was the location of both Crest Records and American Music Inc. And it was probably the same Lode label on which guitarist Fred Carter released the excellent rockin' double-sider, 'Freeloaders' b/w 'I'm In Love (With The Girl Next Door)' (#2001, with Fred Carter himself playing the hot guitar breaks), but at that time, the company was situated at Downey, California.

Tony Epper's single on GallahadIn the early '60s, Sammy set up his own label, Gallahad Records. Sammy : 'Jimmy Bryant did play on a few of those sessions as did Glen Campbell, James Burton and Tommy Allsup.' Apparently, guitarist/arranger Tommy Tedesco was also involved. One of the earliest releases on the label (#101) in 1961 was a '45 by a movie stunt man, Tony Epper, coupling two Spade Cooley compositions, 'Shame On You' and 'Cold Gray Bars'. The version of 'Shame On You', arranged by Jimmy Bryant and produced by Ed Borgelin, is absolutely brilliant - with inspired fiddles and steel guitar. 'Cold Gray Bars' was also recorded by Ned Miller (Capitol #4607, with Orchestra conducted by Billy Liebert). Epper's single was custom pressed by RCA Victor whose Hollywood studios Sammy would often use. However, Sammy went to Bob Summers' studio in El Monte to cut his own Gospel album around 1964. The label's name subsequently became Galahad (for some reason, one 'L' was dropped).

Bob was Les Paul's brother-in-law ; he was married to Mary Ford and Mary and her sisters sang background on the album. Other Galahad sides by Masters were leased to Kapp through Snuff Garrett (of Liberty Records) ; an LP was even put out. He adds : 'Dot Records was another lease deal through Snuff. He wanted to sign me with Liberty but owner Al Bennett could not come to terms. I'm glad I didn't go with Liberty ... Johnny Burnette told me that Al did not pay honest royalties to him.'
All that Galahad material is pretty hard to come by ; we'll have to rely on Sammy to reissue it on CD sometime in the future - along with the unissued stuff he has on the shelves, such as a live TV show he did with The Frontiersmen in the mid-'60s.

Speaking of TV shows, a promo flyer informs us that Sammy started his own weekly live show on local Los Angeles station, KCOP ; it was a 15-minute show with the late, great Johnny Horton. It ran for a little over a year. Sammy later connected with giant automobile dealer, Cal Worthington, and began producing several music TV shows through 1978 : mostly Country Music shows but there were also Top 40 shows and even Talent shows. During this long period, Sammy had the pleasure to work with a host of big names - like Patsy Cline, Marty Robbins, Herb Alpert, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Wanda Jackson, Brenda Lee, Merle Haggard and Jerry Lee Lewis.
In addition, Sammy Masters has written several songs which were recorded by Bobby Darin, Wayne Newton, Glen Campbell and Patsy Cline. The latter recorded Sammy's 'Turn The Cards Slowly' on June 1, 1955, which became one side of her second Coral single ; she also sang Sammy's 'Who Can I Count On' on the back of her million-selling 'Crazy' in 1961, giving him his biggest hit as a writer. That same song was also recorded - but issued years after his death - by
Eddie Cochran. I asked Sammy if he remembered Eddie : 'I worked with Eddie and Hank Cochran when they were still together. We worked some live stage shows together around Southern California.'

A publicity shot signed by Sammy !


In 1997, Sammy cut a CD for Dyonysos Records (with Ray Campi and EccoFonic's boss, Deke Dickerson, helping out) ; his voice sounded as young as ever (check out his great version of Sid King's 'Sag, Drag & Fall' for that matter). The following year, he was booked to appear in England at Hemsby's 21st Rock'n'Roll Weekend on the same bill as
Merrill Moore, Joe 'Ducktail' Clay and Otis Williams, the black doo-wopper who used to front the Charms years ago. John Stafford wrote a raving review in 'Now Dig This' (issue #188) : 'Topped off with a white stetson and toting Buck Owens' famous red, white & blue acoustic guitar, he certainly looked the business and delivered the goods to match'. Sammy Masters is a happy and healthy man, playing golf and doing shows with top picker Gary Lambert, and steeler Billy Tonnesen, each time he can : 'Want to know something ?', he wrote me in July 1999, 'I just found out that my recording engineer on all my 4-Star cuts is still alive and kicking in Irvine, California. He is 85 years old and still playing golf twice per week !'




Indeed, it would be criminal to relegate Sammy Masters to Rock Music's footnote archives. His long career deserves to be fully documented on CD : we especially long to hear the dozens of demos he still has on reel-to-reel tapes !! Up to now, only the Johnny Todd sides have been reissued - on Ace in England and on P-Vine in Japan. No doubt that newcomers to Sammy's music will all agree that his 4-Star classics sure don't pale beside any other rockabilly platters.

© PAUL VIDAL * Privas, France * June 2001