Like many of you out there, I'm real keen on those small indie labels that sprang
up from every part of the US in the '50s and '60s. We all know they were the
creative force behind Rock'n'Roll, Country Music and R'n'Blues.
Sun-Ray Records was one of them, based in Lexington, Kentucky. Like, say, Nabor Records, another Country oriented operation out of Indianapolis, Sun-Ray appeared rather late on the map - '61 or '62. That didn't alter the quality of the stuff released - ranging from guitar/sax rockers to Delmore Bros-type boppers to Presleyish rockabilly-tinged numbers.
A man by
the name of James T. Price was responsible for
creating the Sun-Ray record company ; in fact, the vast majority of the songs
put out on the label was published through Jimmy Price Music Pub. In 1961, Price
issued a modern Hawaiian steel guitar course with tablatures (pictured below)
: he had at least one release on the label. Bud Chowning,
who would later record for the label, says that Price had converted his garage
into a recording studio and printing space with printing equipment : 'He
had a piano in there and a lot of mikes. The recording room was sound proof'.
Among the first Sun-Ray releases, we find a couple of real hot singles by Billy Lathrem, who had previously recorded a much sought-after '45 on another Kentucky label, Rem (# 308, 'King Of Rock'n'Roll'). Dating from late '62, they both feature a rock-a-ballad on one side and a dance rocker on the other. Starting with chords played on an electric piano, 'Bird Walk' (#102) has not a lot of tune, the sax solo is rather amateurish but it moves and the guitar break is good. 'Twist Twist Blues' (#103) is rarely seen for sale and wilder in approach ; penned by James Price, there's some organ in the background, the same kind of sax solo and another reasonable lead guitar part. Both discs came with a similar picture sleeve, showing young Billy Lathrem holding an acoustic guitar.
From there, we jump to about 1966, the year when Sun-Ray issued a record by Bob & Jesse Baker, The Baker Bros. The duo had made an excellent acoustic record for Cincinnati's Ark label ; both in title and in sound, 'Bear Cat Mama' (#125) harked back to an earlier era. The richness of those indie labels lies in the fact that they didn't mind swimming against the tide. Kenneth Brewer's offering, the self-written 'Absolutely On Purpose' (#127), is described by Ohio collector, Tom Fallon, as 'a mild mid-tempo country rocker with an off-key vocal and a combo organ as lead instrument. Weird, but has an inept charm'. Bud Chowning's 'Two Room Trailer' (# 130) is no truck driver's song ; it's a real fine Hillbilly bopper, with slap bass, fiddles and steel guitar & piano breaks. Great feel and the flip, 'Darling Stop', is the kind of medium/fast Country song we'd love to hear more of today. Both tracks were written by Kelly T. Chowning, Jr.
Bud's career far exceeds his tenure with Sun-Ray and has never been documented until now. In 2003, he kindly provided me with all info needed - thus, I invite you to read his full story, in his own words : simply
There's plenty of neat pickin' in Tommy Jackson's offering (#131). Don't know much about him except that he hailed from Winchester, Kentucky, and died some twenty years ago but his 'Flat Top Box' is a firm favorite - three breaks on electric guitar (courtesy of Bud Chowning who used his Fender Jazzmaster) and one on steel, not bad for a 1967 recording ! He had at least one other disc on the label ('Thanks Mr. DJ', #136) but I've never heard it ; it was once described in a sale list as being a 'nice swinger'. The Dave Sparks record (# 133) is pleasant albeit more in the conventional Country bag. Ed Shoemaker is credited on the label for the sweet steel guitar work ; Ed appears to have played with many Sun Ray artists. Says Ed : 'I wish had kept a copy of each [record] but did not. During the early '60s, I played a home made steel guitar. I do however have a recording made in '73 featuring Dave Reffett, Billy Martin, Texas Martin and myself. I am the only one living. All others have passed on in the late '90s. I still play (a much better steel) once in a while. I played with Kenny Whalen and the Travelers on October 21, 2006 at Country World, Georgetown, KY'.
Virgil Vickers & The Kentucky Play Boys provide yet another delightful platter : their 'Truck Driver's Rock' (# 137) is latter-day Delmore Brothers of the highest standard, in stereo. Though the guitars and steel have a field day here, there's an effective Wayne Raney-type harmonica solo near the end. The other side, 'Devil In Disguise', is not the Elvis Presley classic but a haunting, dobro-backed Country ballad with some nostalgic harmonica playing. It was, however, their second release on the label ; their first (#129) was a cover of the Delmores classic, 'Blues Stay Away From Me', and we are left to wonder how good it must sound !
Dave Wells, a singer & guitar player, played on that elusive first '45 by Virgil Vickers and he kindly supplied me with the following, very interesting info : 'I spent the summer of 1966 in Lexington, Kentucky. I met Virgil when I answered an ad placed by the band he was with at the time. The band was led by Earl Ingram, a mediocre guitarist with a fair voice. Virgil was an excellent fiddler, who had recently placed fourth in the national championship competition, and he doubled on bass. Other band members were Billy Johnson, who played a good lead guitar, and a 60-year-old drummer that everyone just called "Mr. Butler". At the same time that I was hired to do vocals and rhythm guitar, they took on a 15-year-old vocalist, Mike Lowery, who knew a lot of Beatles songs. We played a barn dance in Brodhead, Kentucky, every Friday and Saturday. The band had no name except 'Earl Ingram and the boys'.
During the summer, Mike started dating Virgil's daughter. I think her name was Pam. The three of them worked out some vocal harmonies at Virgil's house in Nicholasville. Their voices blended unusually well, and by August Virgil decided he wanted them to record something. I was going off to graduate school, and Mike's mother wouldn't let him play with the band during the school year. Virgil wanted us both to be part of the recording, and he didn't want to include Earl, so he booked the Sun-Ray studio on short notice with little fanfare.
Both sides were recorded by the band minus Earl and plus Pam. As you know, "Blues Stay Away from Me" is a standard three-chord blues. Virgil, Mike and Pam sang it in three-part harmony, and Billy provided a nice guitar break. If my memory is accurate, Virgil did some harmonica fills. The flip side was instrumental and featured Virgil's fiddle. I left Lexington two days after the session. I never saw or heard the finished record, although a friend later told me it had been a minor regional hit. I never knew what Virgil had decided to call our group, but he apparently decided on the Kentucky Playboys'.
Mike Lowery wrote : 'The auditions were held at the old Opera house in Lexington in 1966. I believe that I was the youngest person there. After everyone had performed, I told my friend "the guy with the gold Les Paul guitar will win- he was the best". That was Dave Wells and he did win. I was surprised when they asked me to also join the band on a trial basis. The dances at Brodhead, Ky were very popular with large crowds, especially at county fair time'. He also found that Virgil Vickers had cut a Gospel album sometime during the 70's and told the end of the story : 'His daughter, Pam, is the vocalist. I was told that Virgil plays most of the instruments on the album.  I think that you will be surprised with the quality of the music and the vocals by Pam. Sadly, they both passed away of cancer in the same year within a month of each other. I think that they were both great talents and I was happy that I got to know them and be part of their band'.
The last Sun-Ray item in my collection will appeal to many Rockabilly collectors. Harold Montgomery turns in a super fine performance with 'All Them Wives' (#139). His vocal is sharp and Elvisy - 'Guitar Man'/'US Male' period - while the guitar is very much in the contemporary Southern/Jerry Reed style. The rhythm section comprises drums (played with brushes), a buzzing bass and a distant steel. Flip the record and you're treated to an exceptionally sincere vocal on 'Pardon Me, Jim', which, like the other side, can be termed 'Country Rock'. The two songs were penned by Harold E. Montgomery. According to Bud Chowning, Harold played his own lead guitar while his wife, Cookie, played the drums in his band. They were the mom and dad of John Michael Montgomery. Sadly, Harold passed away shortly after John's first hit.
featured Sacred material. Sun-Ray 109 is a 4-song EP by The
Blue Grass Quartet Of The Lexington Baptist College. It was issued with
a pic sleeve which you can see in my discography. Sun-Ray 114 (by Charles
Blankenship), Sun-Ray 135 (by Rev. George
Bausum) and Sun-Ray 147 (by Sherman Smith)
were also Gospel outings.
A wealth of new information came my way recently thanks to another Sun-Ray artist, Dave Maggard, who had a country release on the label (#134), coupling a John W. Tipton song, 'If You Can Call It Living', with one written by David Sparks, 'My Conscience'. Dave sings and plays rhythm guitar while his band (The Silver Strings) is comprised of Ed Shoemaker (steel guitar), Dave Reffett (lead guitar), Jack Spencer (harmony vocals & guitar) and Bobby Asher (bass guitar). Dave also produced the above-mentioned Harold Montgomery single.
Says Dave : 'I ran the sound on both songs during the recording session... I also played in a country band with Harold 'Curly' Montgomery and his wife for a short time during the 60's'.
Whatever happened to the label after the Johnny & Denny release (#150), I'd like to know ! No doubt James Price had a nice story to tell but, as you'll learn in Bud Chowning's page, he passed away years ago. Many Sun-Ray releases were custom pressed by RCA Victor and most of them bear a bright yellow label with the company's name in red print above the center hole ; however, Tommy Jackson's first single is usually seen with a blue label whereas Montgomery's sports a pink variation. Although second pressings exist, Dave Maggard explains that the artists could choose the colors they wanted for their records. Thus, you will find the following variations : bright yellow with green lettering ; a darker yellow with red lettering ; a pale yellow with black lettering ; pink with black lettering ; white with green lettering ; bright red with black lettering ; blue with gray lettering ; and even purple with gray lettering ! But re-orders always were in the same color label as the original issue to cut down on the pressing costs.
While maybe not as vital as other influential indies, the Sun-Ray label houses quite a few nuggets from a captivating era to be enjoyed by all Country & Rock collectors.
For a comprehensive Sun-Ray discography, please
Paul VIDAL * Privas, France
November 2002 - April 2014
My grateful thanks to Bud CHOWNING,
Dave MAGGARD, Ed SHOEMAKER & Dave WELLS.