Charlie Feathers never enjoyed anything resembling a hit record, yet he is revered by fans the world over as the father of rockabilly music. He combined the keening wail of bluegrass with a unique feel for cotton-patch blues jacked up with playful hiccups, shrieks, and baritone growls. Whether scatting through the sublime nonsense of rock ‘n’ roll or plaintively shivering through a stark country ballad, Feathers put an unmistakable personal stamp on everything he recorded. Although a genuine pioneer and innovator in his own right, Feathers jeopardized his credibility by making controversial claims concerning his part in the evolution of another artist—Elvis Presley.
Feathers, one of seven children, was born to sharecroppers and, like many Depression-era farm boys, quit school at an early age to help his family earn a living. According to Feathers’s daughter, Wanda Vanzant, the lack of education rendered her father a functional illiterate: “This really bothered him more than anyone knows, he didn’t want anyone to know that he couldn’t read or write.” So how did he learn songs? “[F]or someone who could not read or write he could pick up so easy on remembering songs and hearing them in an all together different way….”
As a child, Feathers learned guitar from tenant farming blues artists Obie Peterson, whose wife babysat him, and David “Junior” Kimbrough. Country giant Hank Williams and bluegrass king Bill Monroe influenced Feathers’s work as well. These root styles are all components of what would come to be known as rockabilly. Indeed, Feathers claimed to have been doing “bluegrass rock” or rockabilly since the late 1940s, although during that period he earned his living in the Texas oil fields and at a Memphis-area box factory.
A Country Singer at Sun Records
Feathers began recording for Sun Records in 1953. Backed by Memphis music veterans Quinton Claunch and Bill Cantrell, he released a pair of unsuccessful pure hillbilly singles—the first on Sun’s subsidiary label Flip, the second on Sun. The A-side of his debut “Peepin’ Eyes” was written by Feathers, the other three songs released were composed by Claunch and Cantrell whom Sam Phillips trusted creatively. “We had those songs worked up before we went into the studio,” remembered Stan Kesler, who played steel guitar on the sessions. “Me, and Bill Cantrell and Quinton Claunch got together with Charlie and worked up some of the arrangements…. Sam might have made some changes, but I don’t remember them.”
Feathers’s greatest fame at Sun came when he was listed with Kesler as the cowriter of Elvis Presley’s first number-one country hit “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.” However, Kesler told Ace Collins, author of The Stories Behind Country Music’s All-Time Greatest 100 Songs, that he had written the entire song and gave Feathers a half share as payment for making a demonstration recording. Although the song spent 39 weeks on the country charts, Feathers was disappointed in the financial returns and sold his half back to Kesler a few years later.
During this time the singer formed his band, Charlie Feathers and the Musical Warriors, with string bass player Jody Chastain and lead guitarist Jerry Huffman. The only surviving member of the trio, Huffman, recalled the formation of the group, “I first met Charlie in the fall of 1955 at s mutual friend’s (Quinton Clanch’s) house. Charlie needed a lead guitar player for an upcoming gig at a skating rink in Paragould, Ark., and asked me to substitute.” Eventually Huffman told Feathers about his friend Chastain, who worked part-time as a steel player for another Memphis rockabilly, Eddie Bond. “The steel worked fine for Charlie’s Sun and Flip records,” explained Huffman, “But Charlie and we wanted to get on board the rock ‘n’ roll (rockabilly) ship, so Jody did an amazing quick jump from steel to bass. We then went to Sun and Sam recorded ‘Conine, Corrina’ but was in no hurry to release it. So we took that arrangement and wrote ‘Get with It’ and ‘Tongue-Tied Jill’ and traipsed off to Meteor Records and were off the ground and running, fresh onto the rockabilly (rock ‘n’ roll) scene.”
Feathers told his daughter Wanda that Sam Phillips wouldn’t release his early harmonica-laden version of
For the Record…
Born Charles Arthur Lindbergh Feathers on June 12, 1932, in Slayden, MS; died on August 29, 1998, in Memphis, TN.
Recorded demos at Sun Records studio, 1954; released first singles, 1955; cowrote Elvis Presley’s first number-one country hit “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” 1955; released singles on Meteor and King labels, 1956-57; as Charlie Morgan, released the folkish “Dinky John” b/w “South Of Chicago” on Walmay, 1959; released singles on Holiday Inn and Philwood labels, 1960s; released self-titled album and various singles on Redneck Records, 1973; LP Rockabilly Rhythm released on Cowboy Carl Records, 1973; released singles on Barrelhouse and Rollin’ Rock labels, 1974; released Barrelhouse LP Live In Memphis, Tennessee, 1976; London debut at Rainbow Theater, 1977; established his own Feathers label and released self-titled two-album set, 1979; Houston television appearance The Little Ole Show is released on ten-inch LP by Lunar Records, 1979; first major label album released on Elektra/Nonesuch, 1991; I Ain’t Done Yet released on Sunjay Records, 1993; acclaimed two-CD career retrospective Get With It: Essential Recordings (1954-69) released by Revenant Records, 1998; Feathers’s daughter Wanda Vanzant released concert CD Live In Paris ‘87 on the Peepin’ Eyes label, 2002.
Addresses: Record company —Revenant Records, P.O. Box 198732, Nashville, TN 37219-8732, contact: Dean Blackwood, [email protected]; Peepin’ Eyes Records, 2550 Fairbrook Cove, Horn Lake, MS 38637, phone: (662) 342-4006, e-mail: pee [email protected]; Norton Records, Box 646 Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276, phone: (718) 789-4438, fax: (718) 398-9215, e-mail: [email protected]
“Tongue-Tied Jill” at Sun because he thought it ridiculed the afflicted. Redone at Les Bihari’s Meteor Records in 1956, “Tongue-Tied Jill” b/w “Get with It” not only proved a peppy showcase for Feathers trademark rockabilly pyrotechnics, it garnered decent regional airplay and sales. Unfortunately the group never received a royalty payment from the label’s eccentric owner. As a result they moved to Syd Nathan’s Cincinnati-based King label where he and his band, now billed as Charlie Feathers with Jody & Jerry, recorded their most enduring works.
Together they wrote and recorded the defiant “One Hand Loose,” hiccuping masterpieces “Everybody’s Lovin’ My Baby,” “Bottle to the Baby,” and the tauntingly slow “Can’t Hardly Stand It.” According to Huffman, their King releases were somewhat popular in the mid-South. At their peak, the trio, augmented by drummer Jimmy Swords, appeared on radio’s Big D Jamboree and Wink Martindale’s Memphis television show, as well as various local programs in Jackson and Nashville.
In an effort to emulate Presley’s RCA hits, King sent the group down to Nashville to record with a Jordanaire-like backup group led by Johnny Bragg of the Prisonaires. The resultant singles, “When You Come Around” and “Nobody’s Woman” were as catchy as any country crossover material released in 1957, but made no impact on the charts. Rockabilly died commercially by the end of the 1950s and the trio broke up, although Huffman and Feathers continued to write songs and record demos into the early 1960s.
Showing great conviction, Feathers never lost faith in the music. When not working day jobs, he continued to record for such small labels as Kay, Walmay, Philwood, Holiday Inn, Redneck, Renegade, Barrelhouse, and his own Feathers’ Records. Many of those recordings mixed gut-wrenching country and blues remakes with refurbished rockabilly, and feature Feathers’s son Charles Arthur “Bubba” Feathers on lead guitar, and daughter Wanda on tambourine and backup vocals. Together, they played local bars, military bases, and officers clubs.
Europeans began picking up on Feathers’s classic King material as early as the 1960s. His popularity grew with reissues on the overseas Charly and Bear Family labels. Elvis Presley’s 1977 death spurred renewed interest in the roots of his sound. As a result, punk bands like the Cramps and revivalists such as the Stray Cats began covering Feathers’s old tunes, while fans and writers flocked to his doorstep seeking the lowdown on rockabilly. Feathers gladly shared his many valid theories concerning slapback—delayed tape echo, musical feel, and style.
Peter Guralnick’s book Lost Highway first alerted fans to Feathers’s more sensational claims about rockabilly music and his alleged role in Presley’s success. Feathers told Guralnick he arranged all of Presley’s Sun material and gave Jerry Lee Lewis the idea for his “pumpin’ piano” sound. They are among many claims Feathers made throughout his lifetime which are difficult to disprove or believe, though testimony exists on both sides.
Stan Kesler, who played on dozens of Sun sessions, told Contemporary Musicians, “I never saw him work in the studio with Elvis at all. I really don’t think that’s true, to tell you the truth.” He grudgingly allowed, “He might’ve worked with him when I wasn’t looking.” Presley’s 1950-60s drummer D.J. Fontana was asked by Contemporary Musicians if Elvis ever talked about Feathers during their many long hours on the road together. “He never mentioned him one time—at no time,” later adding, “[I]f his name had come up I would’ve remembered it because I was familiar with him and a lot of other guys. I never heard Elvis say anything about learning from anybody. He just sang what he felt like singing and that was the end of it.” In Craig Morrison’s book Go Cat Go! Rockabilly Music and Its Makers, Presley sideman Scotty Moore stated that Feathers was constantly in and out of the studio but was not a factor on Presley’s sessions.
Both J.M. Van Eaton and Roland Janes arrived at Sun after Feathers left, but played on all of Jerry Lee Lewis’s most important sessions. As with all of Feathers’s associates contacted by Contemporary Musicians, they admire Feathers’s talent and believe he knew what rockabilly was all about, but are hesitant to believe his claims—including former Sun rockabilly artist Sonny Burgess. It’s important to note that author Guralnick himself barely referred to Feathers in his exhaustively researched, best-selling biographies on the life of Elvis Presley.
Yet Feathers’s wife Rosemary has related clear memories of the early days to her daughter, Wanda Vanzant. “We were living on Pauline Street here in Memphis and Elvis would come by in an old black pick-up truck and pick my dad up and they would go to the studio and stay all day,” Vanzant told Contemporary Musicians. “We did not have a car and my mother had to catch the bus to go to her job downtown and she would always catch the bus back and get off in front of the studio at 9:00 p.m. just about every night, and she and my dad would walk home together. Sometimes she would have to wait on him to finish whatever they were doing in the studio. Sometimes when [Elvis] would pick my dad up they would go to the fan club house. Shirley, president of my dad’s fan club, has told me that Elvis had a little crush on a girl that was living across from them.”
Further, in the liner notes for Norton’s Uh Huh Honey CD, no less a figure than country legend Johnny Cash recalls Feathers running the board during Presley’s “Baby Let’s Play House” session. More controversially, in Rockabilly—A Forty Year Journey author Billy Poore claims that he has heard Feathers’s private collection of Sun session tapes featuring the distinct voices of Feathers, Presley, and Sam Phillips working together. In a stranger twist—Vanzant reports that no Sun studio tapes exist in her late father’s archives. With so many conflicting stories, it’s unlikely that there will be a definitive explanation of what Feathers did or didn’t do at the Sun studio.
Although Feathers’s claims angered many, the rockabilly icon remained in constant demand for overseas tours. To the delight of his fans, he also began releasing his backlog of acoustic demos and alternate takes on Billy Miller and Miriam Linna’s New York-based Norton label. Unfortunately, the removal of a cancerous lung and complications from diabetes made it difficult for Feathers to capitalize on this new career momentum, but he marshaled enough strength to record his highly regarded major label debut for Elektra/Nonesuch in 1991. Likewise, his final sessions for Billy Poore demonstrated that even while desperately ill, Feathers could still wring something from the oldest tunes in his repertoire. “A month before my dad passed away,” recalled Vanzant to Contemporary Musicians, “he told my mother ‘You know, I probably never could read or write but I sure could sing.’”
Good Rockin’ Tonight/Live in Memphis, Barrelhouse, 1976; reissued, Edsel, 1993.
That Rock-a-Billy Cat!, Edsel, 1979; reissued, 1994.
Wild Wild Party, Rockstar, 1987.
Charlie Feathers, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1991.
Uh Huh Honey (compilation), Norton, 1992.
Rockabilly Shakeout, Ace, 1992.
I Ain’t Done Yet, Sunjay, 1993.
Honky Tonk Man, New Rose, 1994.
Rock-a-Billy, Zu-Zazz, 1994.
Tip Top Daddy —Unissued Acoustic Demos 1958-73, Norton, 1995.
Get With It: Essential Recordings (1954-69) (compilation), Revenant, 1998; reissued, 2002.
His Complete King Recordings (compilation), King, 1999.
Live in Paris ‘87, Peepin’ Eyes, 2002.
Collins, Ace, The Stories Behind Country Music’s All-Time Greatest 100 Songs, Boulevard Books, 1996.
Escortt, Colin, and Martin Hawkins, The Complete Sun Label Sessions, Revised, Swift Record Distributors, 1978.
Graff, Gary, and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, second edition, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Guralnick, Peter, Lost Highway, David R. Godine (publisher), 1979.
Hardy, Phil, and Dave Laing, The Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, Faber and Faber Limited, 1990.
Knopper, Steve, editor, MusicHound Swing: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Mansfield, Brian, and Gary Graff, editors, MusicHound Country: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1997.
Morrison, Craig, Go Cat Got Rockabilly Music and Its Makers, University Of Illinois Press, 1996.
McNutt, Randy, We Wanna Boogie—An Illustrated History of the American Rockabilly Movement, revised edition, HHP, 1988.
Poore, Billy, Rockabilly—A Forty Year Journey, Hal Leonard, 1998.
Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, 1995.
Talveski, Nick, Tombstone Blues: The Encyclopedia of Rock Obituaries, Omnibus Press, 1999.
Vale, V., and Andrea Juno, RE/Search #14: Incredibly Strange Music, Volume 1, RE/Search Publications, 1993.
“Charlie Feathers,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 30, 2002).
“Charlie Feathers,” Rockabilly Central, http://www.rockabilly.net/main.shtml (September 30, 2002).
“Charlie Feathers,” Rockabilly Hall of Fame, http://www.rockablillyhall.com (September 30, 2002.)
“charlie feathers,” Rockville International.http://members.aol.com/Zeeuw/Rockville.htm (September 30, 2002).
Additional information obtained from liner notes from Feathers’s two Norton releases, the Revenant set, and e-mails from the artist’s daughter, Wanda Vanzant, and former bandmate Jerry Huffman. The author also interviewed Feathers’s 1970s drummer Col. Robert Morris and former Sun Records artists Sonny Burgess, Stan Kesler, Billy Lee Riley, Roland Janes, J.M. Van Eaton, and DJ Fontana.
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