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
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
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.'
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 !
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).
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.
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'
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.
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
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
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.'
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.
VIDAL * Privas, France * June 2001