Wednesday, 02 April 2008
Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of Tulsa Today contributor Jim Downing’s 1991 interview with legendary Tulsa deejay and music historian Rockin’ John Henry. To read part one, click here.
Henry – who was born on 4/4/44 – died in August of 2004, but his family, friends, fans and fellow musicians will gather on Friday, April 4, 2008 at VFW Post 577, 1109 E. Sixth Street (6th & Peoria), to pay tribute to the man, his music and his radio shows: “Hadacol Hillbilly Hoedown”, “Saturday Bandstand” and “Smokehouse Blues”. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and the program gets under way promptly at 8 p.m.
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.
Rockin’ John Henry’s the man with the memory, so I went out on a limb and asked him if he remembered the first Rock & Roll show he ever saw.
“Good question. I don’t recall who I saw first, but it was one of those KAKC hops at the Continental Skating Arena (which stood at 11th & Norfolk) with Gene Crose and the Rockets, Rodney and the Blazers, Chuck Berry, Dale Postoak or Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. Ronnie was popular around here before he had any chart success,” Henry recalled. “The first band I ever saw was a local band at my high school in 1957. I remember feeling a little embarrassed by it because I knew my mom and dad were standing around and I didn’t want to act too enthusiastic, but inwardly it was really an emotional thing. I was getting high! I don’t know if maybe we tend to exaggerate things 30 years later, but I didn’t think of it in those terms at the time. It was like seeing a good movie or something. I wanted to go nuts but I didn’t see anyone else going nuts, so I thought I might be the only one feeling that way. But, yeah, I was hooked! It was kind of like discovering girls!”
Henry featured some famous folks – big celebrities – on his shows, and I asked him to name names.
“First and foremost would be Gaillard Sartain. I always admired his ‘Mazeppa’ stuff, never dreaming that I’d have him on my show. I had a chance to meet him and he volunteered to join me. I’ve had the time of my life with that guy. I think he’s one of the most talented American comics to ever walk the streets. Few can hold a candle to his ability to be extemporaneous and funny,” Henry said. “He came in to the station about 5:30 one Saturday morning, and he had picked up some doughnuts on the way. The gal at the shop asked, ‘May I help you?’ and Sartain said, ‘Yeah, I want three of these, two of those, six of these, two of those and four of these.’ She asked, ‘Is that for here or to go?’”
(I have a tape of one Saturday Bandstand that has Sartain, Jim Millaway (Sherman Oaks), Bill Davis, and David Teegarden. It is hilarious, like a runaway kindergarten, and Henry kept those maniacs corralled. I gained a lot of respect for him that day.)
“There had to be a Bud Abbott with all those Lou Costellos running around,” he chuckles. “There were times that had it been television, we couldn’t have gone on; we were too hysterical. I’ve had the pleasure of having Otis Blackwell, who wrote ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘Don’t Be Cruel’. The Crickets have been here; Del Shannon’s been here a couple of times. I’ve had members of Buddy Holly’s family – Buddy’s brother gave me an extended interview – and Tommy Allsup, who was with Buddy at the end.”
“What about the origin of your show? Did it start on KGTO?”
“Actually, on KELI,” Henry said. “Over a period of four or five years in the late 70s, I’d tried to interest somebody in doing a Blues show. No one was playing pure Blues, as I’m doing now. Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters – no one seemed to be interested. I was announcing at the Tulsa Speedway with Ken Rank. ‘Commander Ken’ was the afternoon jock on KRMG and I asked him if I could do it as part of his show, but their programming was too restricted. The following year he moved to KELI and asked me to bring up a box of records on a Saturday morning, so I did. I played some obscure stuff like ‘It Ain’t the Meat’ – and within an hour, the phones were ringing off the wall. People were calling in to say, ‘I haven’t heard those songs in so long, it’s great!’ He invited me back again and again until the manager finally offered me the six-to-noon Saturday show.
“It wasn’t all due to my appeal – I found out later that Ken wanted the day off. But I’m still grateful to him. It was called ‘Saturday Morning Graffiti’, but I changed it to ‘Saturday Bandstand’ to draw the image of old Rock & Roll. After a while, the station went to news and talk and I was the only music on there for a while. But another change was coming, so I talked to Charlie Derrick at KRAV/KGTO to say I was available – and a month later I was on KGTO. I spent four years there. I left reluctantly because they were very good to me; I’d found my direction in the freedom they gave me.
“KCFO had dropped the KAKC call letters, and I suggested to Jim Smith that they resurrect the original big rocker. He was from Missouri and didn’t know what KAKC had been, but he understood. We went on the air on a Monday with an oldies satellite feed, and soon began ‘The Smokehouse’ together on Sunday nights. In July of 1988, I went on seven days a week,” Henry said.
Johnny and the Crossfires
“Part of my success is due to the fact that there’s a big difference between Pat Boone’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ and Little Richard’s original version. I play them back to back.”
Back in 1991, Friday mornings found Henry KMOD, playing guitar with his own band, ‘Rockin’ Johnny Flush and The Commodes’, but by then, the Bop Cats were too big to play local clubs, opting to book special events and private parties.
“Bill Holden was the original lead singer.” Henry said. “When he left, we still had a Billy – Bill Snow. David Riley, my brother-in-law, played drums. My sister, Jill Riley, and my two cousins Gwyn and Sue Ann sang back-up as the Bopkittens. Ken Grass joined on keys and sax. There are 11 people on the payroll, a converted bus, sound crew, and light people. We probably don’t make any more money than a bar band, but the gross is bigger! We do reunions and a lot of country club dates in Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas. Snow and Jill formed Beauty and the Beats. Jill plays some keyboards with the Bop Cats. Don Price is now on guitar. Larry York is on bass and Louis Larry Bell is on keyboards. That’s pretty much the line-up. Gwyn moved to California and we now have Jeris Ford, who’s had some Top 20 country hits. Our tenth anniversary concert was bigger than we ever would’ve dreamed.”
Rockin’ John plays his Les Paul on stage, spins the platters at his day job – mounds of sounds and stacks of wax – and gets paid for it! Heaven knows how much his wife Barbara works to love this guy who seems to have it all.
We should all be so lucky.
“Detroit V-8 engines and 45 RPM records are what made America great.”
“Stay with Rock & Roll and you’ll always stay young.”
“Playing the music no one else will play – gone but not forgotten.”
-Rockin’ John Henry
I am proud to say that John Henry and I were friends. We had philosophical disagreements and even some hurdles in our friendship, but the vast plain of our common ground dwarfed those minor bumps. He called me “Big Jim,” possibly inferring I was kin of Big Al Downing. I’m only five foot eight.
Could John Henry get hired today? Probably not. Corporate radio was already phasing him out before his untimely passing. Not long ago, he was on seven wonderful days a week. His weekday show was much like the ‘Saturday Bandstand’ show, with plenty of music trivia and obscure musical knowledge. Then they cut his hours back to just ‘Saturday Bandstand’ and the Sunday night ‘Smokehouse Blues’ show. Lastly, they moved the Bandstand show to Sunday morning, which would probably be the last step before eliminating it entirely.
John loved music and his show was educational as well as entertaining. One day he played “The Train Kept A-Rollin” by Aerosmith and then said, “Many of you know that Aerosmith got that arrangement partly from the Yardbirds,” and then he played that version. “But did you know the Yardbirds were inspired by this record?” Then he played the ‘50s version of the song by the Rock & Roll Trio. Lastly, he played the original by Tiny Bradshaw, which even I had never heard before.
Rockin’ John Henry remembered
John Henry may well have been the greatest disk jockey ever. You may dispute that if you like, but if you listened to Wolfman Jack, Randy’s Record Shop, Dick Biondi, Scooter Seegraves and Casey Kasem, you know that nobody could do what John Henry did.
You young people who listened to ‘Saturday Bandstand’, cherish your memories of that show. John was definitely the last actual Disk Jockey in Tulsa. He was playing his own records up until the day the corporation came and took the turntables out of the studio. He told me that radio would soon be generic and fully automated, and that has almost completely come to be. The songs are selected by a think tank Out West, which is probably bribed by record companies under the table. There are not even CDs at the station; the songs are all on a computer. The announcers come in and do “voice tracking” which are little snippets: “That was Led Zeppelin and here’s Bob Seger.” which the computer inserts between songs and commercials. With the work of the deejay fully automated, the announcing for a four-hour show can be done in minutes, further lowering wages and expenses.
The creativity that John and I grew up on and enjoyed in radio is fading fast. The old locally owned stations would play local records alongside Elvis, and local musicians benefited as well as the local culture. The Next Big Thing is pre-packaged and spoon-fed to consumers, not something discovered by young lads surfing the AM dial at midnight. It is the end of an era, and I believe we are worse for it as a culture. Art is being replaced by commerce, and the bottom line takes precedent over the kind of society we are.
There is oldies radio, but you will only hear the top songs, not the ones that were later remade or the ones that were poor sellers but influential. You will never hear Clyde Stacy’s “Hoy Hoy” or Les Cooper and the Soul Rockers again. My remembrance of the Golden Age of Rock & Roll, for which John Henry carried the banner, gives me a lump in the throat and goose bumps at the same time.
Those of us who love Rock & Roll, old-time country music and the Blues were blessed to have this man in our town, on the radio sometimes seven days a week, spinning the disks and spinning the yarns. Excuse me; there must be something in my eye … Rock on, Rockin’ John, rock on.
— Jim Downing, March 2008
(To read part one of this series, click here. To read more about Rockin’ John Henry click here.)
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 02 April 2008 )