Sunday, 30 March 2008
Editor’s Note: The following article is the first of two installments as Tulsa Today revisits contributor Jim Downing’s 1991 interview with legendary Tulsa deejay and music historian Rockin’ John Henry, who died in August of 2004.
Henry may have passed on to a better life, but those still living in this one are invited to celebrate the anniversary of his 4/4/44 birthday on Friday, April 4, 2008, at VFW Post 577 , located at 1109 E. Sixth Street (6th & Peoria) in Tulsa. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and the program commences at 8 p.m. sharp.
The theme of the evening will honor Henry’s radio shows: “Hadacol Hillbilly Hoedown”, “Saturday Bandstand” and “Smokehouse Blues”. Guest musicians slated to appear and/or perform include Don White, Billy Parker, Rodney Lay, Steve Bagsby, Randy Crouch, Gene Crose, Rocky Frisco, John D. LeVan, Bill Holden, Wes Reynolds, David Dover, Bill Davis, David Teegarden, Tommy Tripplehorn and Jimmy Markham – among others.
Admission is free, but donations to the VFW or the Rockin’ John Henry Foundation – established to preserve his vast library of music and help fund scholarships in music and broadcasting – are encouraged. Music memorabilia is welcomed, and if you have any recordings of John Henry radio shows, they would be greatly appreciated, too.
It was a moment like any other in young John Henry’s life – but one that would drive him for the rest of it.
“I was fourteen years old. It was a wintry Friday after a football game. We were leaving the old Eucha Mission Field House where the dance was, in Lester Lovelace’s 1950 Plymouth with the defroster on. I was in tall cotton – in my leather jacket and a flat top with the sides combed back – and turned that old six-volt radio on. As it warmed up, I I began to hear it: the end of the song ‘Peggy Sue’. Oh my God, turn that up! What was THAT?! I got cold chills. Didn’t know who it was, had to have it.”
Thirty years later, John Henry remembers that moment as if it just happened. He bought that Buddy Holly record the next day, not yet knowing that it was the same group – The Crickets – who had done ‘That’ll be The Day’. He still has it and 100 more copies of it.
I had to confess: the same sort of thing happened to me when I first heard Ray Charles, ‘Shapes of Things’ and Jimmy Smith.
“Most people have that same type of experience.” Henry explained. “Whatever the era – whether it be the Yardbirds or Van Halen or whatever – the first time you hear the greatest thing you’ve ever heard is a never-to-be-repeated experience.”
John Henry’s persona may seem a bit contradictory. Much of the time he looks pensive and preoccupied, his stony face seemingly stolen from Mount Rushmore. On the other hand, he can be one of the funniest people around, especially when he’s sparring with a caller to his radio shows, or jiving back and forth with such certified lunatics as Bill Davis and Gaillard Sartain. But there’s no question about how he feels about that good ole Rock & Roll: it is his passion, and he is dedicated to keeping its history alive and correct.
Calling John Henry a “walking encyclopedia” of Rock & Roll doesn’t really do him proper justice; he’s more like the Library of Congress of Rock & Roll.
If you casually ask him, “Who did ‘Sixteen Candles’?”, Henry will not only inform you that it was The Crests, but that the lead singer, Johnny Maestro, was also the lead singer on The Brooklyn Bridge’s ‘The Worst That Could Happen’ – which, incidentally, was written by Okie Jim Webb. (Not that you asked, but now you know.)
Rockin’ John Henry
Johnny David Henry is a Tulsa native, born 4/4/44 and raised in Sapulpa. His father and grandfather were blacksmith/welders. His parents listened to big band music and Bob Wills. Henry started piano lessons at age six and played trumpet through high school. “Mostly at my parents’ urging – what would happen if I didn’t? I was much more interested in the guitar,” he noted. “I was thirteen or so when I borrowed a Sears Silvertone guitar with the amp built into the case. It was a $50 toy guitar then. Now they’re valuable collector’s items.”
I asked him – knowing full well that he did – if he remembered the first song he learned to play on it.
“It was ‘Honky Tonk.’ Three chords in E. Ha,” He chuckles at the memory. “My first gig was at Sophia Letlow’s Dance School. We sprayed our hair silver, wore sunglasses and played the same four songs over and over. I’m told one of the guys, now a Washington attorney, has a tape of that.”
“And it was downhill from there?”
“Right – and I’m still paying for it,” he grinned. “Johnny and the Crossfires was my first real band. We did about ten songs, mostly instrumentals. All those guys have real jobs now.”
“You were Johnny?” I deadpanned.
“Yes, I was the only one named Johnny,” he deadpanned back.
“Irving and The Crossfires wouldn’t have worked as well?” I not-exactly-deadpanned, beginning to crack a smile.
“No,” he laughed.
By way of explanation, “Crossfire” was an instrumental hit by Johnny and the Hurricanes. Fledgling bands are often not very original with their names – but at least they recycle.
Henry entered the service after completing high school, and generally went on with life – but he never neglected his music. He played in various bands until 1981, when he formed The Blue River Band, which played country. The group also performed nostalgia gigs as Johnny and the Teen Tones; that band evolved into Billy and the Bop Cats.
“I always admired the Big Seven jocks – Scooter Seagraves, Dick Schmitz and Roger Borden –on KAKC,” Henry says. “I said when I grew up I wanted to be a deejay, but I never really believed it. There was a radio station in Sapulpa – KREK- and a guy named Ken Cox, whom I got to know. He let me come in and watch him and push a few buttons, and I got really enthused. And then, in 1965, when I was in Claremore, I started on a little radio station there, playing real twangy country – the white man’s blues.”
Listening to Henry talk, I am reminded that I am speaking with a radio announcer; that cadence crops up in his everyday speech patterns.
“Were you influenced by any of the nationally known jocks, such as Dick Biondi on WLS?” I asked him.
“Wolfman Jack was on XERF in Del Rio, Texas. Their transmitter was across the border in Mexico. They could ignore the FCC’s 50,000-watt rule and kick out 100,000 watts all over the middle of America. I liked him because he sounded like Little Richard. You could buy songbooks from him – and even live chickens,” Henry said with a smile. “There was a guy named Frank Berry, I believe on KRMG, who played black screaming gospel late at night in the early fifties. I had a favorite Nashville station that had ‘Randy’s Record Shop’, where I heard stuff like Big Joe Turner and the like. I didn’t really know what it was, I just liked it. Ours was a typical Ozzie and Harriet family, and late at night everyone was asleep – except little Johnny, who had his radio by his pillow, stumbling across far-away stations and hearing LaVerne Baker and such.”
“Is it true you have one of the biggest record collections in Oklahoma?” I asked.
“I’ve never really counted them, Jim,” he replied, “but with 78s, albums, and 45s, it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000. I really don’t care; the more the merrier, I guess it used to be a collection, but now I call it a library. The effort was to try to come up with one copy of every hit record, be it blues, country or rock; rather an impossible task, when you think about it. I have some thick ones from around 1900, not anything musically important. I have some blues from the late 1920s.”
(I can attest to the fact that he’s a collector. I was at a garage sale once and found a record collection of the widow of a deejay. They were mostly 70s promotional albums, immaculate; 300 of them for ten cents apiece. I called John. “I’ll take them all,” he said, “sight unseen!”)
“If you could take ten records to a desert island, what would they be?”
Henry answered the query like he’d already given it some thought, saying he’d take “almost any Chuck Berry record. I’d have to have an Elvis and a Little Richard – things that were important to me in their time and still are from a historical standpoint. My all-time favorite is still ‘Peggy Sue’. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to The Crickets about that session. The drummer was down the hall for a little echo effect, doing those paradiddles. Buddy was singing and playing so fast on the rhythm pickup that Nick Sullivan had to reach over and flip the treble pickup on for him for the break! Overdubbing had been done before, but I don’t know if those kinds of songs would have had the spontaneity if done in a more formal setting. They sold millions and millions of records.”
I asked him if his collection included any rarities.
“One is the original Teen Kings’ record of ‘Ooby Dooby’, on the Jewel label, recorded in Clovis, New Mexico. Up in the corner in little print, it says ‘vocal by Roy Orbison’. He autographed it for me and said he hadn’t seen a copy of it in 25 years. There may have been only 500 or 1,000 of them to begin with. One that I looked for years was ‘It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion’ by The Swallows. I got those before they were collectible. I found one at a garage sale that’s extremely rare: Richie Valens, live at his old junior high school for an assembly.”
Henry’s favorite genres are blues and rockabilly. I asked him if the latter was a grassroots phenomenon or if Carl Perkins invented it.
“You could really split hairs as to who recorded what first; it was all happening so fast back then. It could’ve been Joe Smith in his garage. It was white hillbillies singing Rhythm & Blues music. Early charts in Billboard had Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis on the Hot Country, while Little Richard and Bo Diddley were on the Rhythm & Blues charts. In 1958, the Hot 100 put them together. Rock & Roll is southern music – you didn’t find rock singers from New York and Chicago,” Henry said.
Every day on his radio show, Henry observes birthdays of famous recording artists, sometimes the anniversary of their deaths or historical release dates and famous performances.
“How do you find someone like Paul Peterson’s classmate you had on the other day?” I asked.
“I have a lot of help through the audience, and I routinely appeal for that on the radio. ‘If you know who was in this band …’, and so on. I’ve spent 10 years looking for some people, just for fun. Larry Dowd from Des Moines, Iowa, had a big record on KAKC, ‘Blue Swingin’ Mama’ and ‘Pink Cadillac’, a two-sided Top Twenty hit 30 years ago, and I thought, ‘Whatever happened to … (dramatic pause) Larry Dowd?’ I finally got to talk to his parents, and they said they hadn’t seen him in seven years! Where is Bobby Lee Trammel?”
“The Arkansas Twist!” (I knew that one.)
“He did sock hops here. Another one we look for from Tulsa is Lucky Clark. He wrote ‘Just Two Kinds Of People in the World’ which was a hit for Little Anthony and the Imperials. I missed him by one day. I get pretty obscure,” he explained.
I told him I once heard a young deejayette introduce ‘All Along the Watchtower’ from Bob Dylan’s “Live At Budokan” album as ‘an old Jimi Hendrix song.’ Henry will not abide such inaccuracies. He uses some reference books for historical data, but relies mostly on his phenomenal memory and old KAKC/Pepsi Top 50 surveys and KELI Top 40 lists.
“My collection of those has some gaps in it,” he remarked, “but I like to be of local interest. What was popular in Tulsa may not have been what was popular elsewhere in those days.” Explaining that before national playlists began dictating the standardization of radio content so that stations across the country play the same songs, local bands with homemade singles often made the local Top Ten. Likewise, some national hits might just not catch on locally.
(Check out the second installment of this two-part article by clicking here. To read more about Rockin’ John Henry click here.)
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 02 April 2008 )