Stories from the Rockabilly Days
by Stu Frederick
A ROCKABILLY ONCE, THEN AGAIN!
DON WOODY, A MAN OF CHARACTER - Here is a man who had a brush with fame, left his mark, and moved on. I have a large measure of respect for any person who can keep their feet on the ground while pursuing their dreams. I believe Don Woody is such a man. The nice thing is, his dream came back around to find him just like a well-thrown boomerang!
Don was born and raised in Missouri, where he grew up with a great appreciation for country music. While in high school, Don went to work for a small local radio station, spinning records and conducting on-air interviews. Don went on to college at Southwestern Missouri State University in 1954, where he applied for jobs at several local radio stations. The job he got landed him smack in the rockabilly scene as artists like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley hit the airwaves. Don enjoyed them a lot and also liked the music of Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly, who came along a little bit later.
Trying his hand at showbiz, Don began doing stand-up comedy at several local nightclubs. His radio contacts got him hired as a warm-up for a country program called Ozark Jubilee, hosted by country legend Red Foley. This led to summer bus tours with some of the acts that played on the jubilee.
Don never played an instrument and, until this time, had not yet branched into the music side of the business. Then he met fellow fraternity brother Paul Simmons. Paul was an aspiring songwriter who had not yet had a success. The two of them teamed up and put together some tunes they felt would do the trick. Because neither of them played an instrument, they would find a music student at the college to have the tune written out for them! After a few false starts, Don and Paul came up with "Bigelow 6-200." The demo landed them a recording contract with Decca, who was signing a lot of artists in those frenzied days. If a recording didn't hit the top right away, it was "Don't call us, we'll call you!"
In 1956, Don was assigned a session at Owen Bradley's recording studio in Nashville, Tennessee. The house musicians at Bradley's were a group called the Slewfoot Five, headed by legendary guitarist, Grady Martin. Together they recorded four songs. Decca chose a song called "Bird Dog" for the first release. By an incredible stroke of fate, the Everly Brothers simultaneously released their own song called "Bird Dog", which of course became a major hit. Don Woody's song of the same name remained overshadowed, catching the sales of those who mistook his for the Everlys', which was completely different! Even considering their own bad timing, Decca immediately dropped Don Woody from their roster when "Bird Dog" didn't make it. The clever, witty "B" side tune, "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" never got a chance.
All of the above events happened while Don was in school. Nearing graduation, Don had an ROTC commitment to fulfull. He entered the Army as a second lieutenant. Upon his discharge, he returned to Springfield with a wife and a baby. After a stint with his old radio station, Don made the hard choice for stability and went to work for Sears & Roebuck. During the two decades following his brief recording career, Don became a regional vice president for Sears.
Then in 1976, twenty years after his first Nashville recording session, Don was contacted by the British media. His "B" side tune, "Barking Up a Wrong Tree", had been picked up by a European record company for a rockabilly compilation. His song was suddenly in demand after a local DJ played it on the air!
Don Woody today!
Don went on to retire from Sears and became a real estate executive in San Antonio, Texas. His songs have now been recorded by rockabilly artists in the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Estonia, Norway, and the United Kingdom! Which brings up a valid point that we of the Rivers like to make: Rockabilly, the original American Rock'n'Roll, continues to get far more respect in other parts of the world than it does here in it's home! ALTHOUGH, we are happy to note that Don Woody, a fine gentleman, family man, and clever songwriter (along with his pal, Paul Simmons) will be featured in the spectacular "Viva Las Vegas" rockabilly festival this year (2007) as a headline performer! Don, we're glad to have you back!
ADDED FACT: Remember that first demo that got Don and Paul into Decca (the title was "Bigelow 6-200")? Well, if you're as old as me, you might remember a little girl named Brenda Lee, who first appeared on Red Foley's Ozark Jubilee. Our boys played that song for her manager. He liked it! It became Brenda Lee's first record when she was all of eleven years old!
EXTRA ADDED FACT: Other famous artists who recorded in Owen Bradley's studio included Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, and Johnny Burnette's Rock and Roll Trio. There are more stories in each of those sessions which I'll have to get to at another time!
Meanwhile, if you'd like to hear those great tunes recorded by Don Woody back in the Rockabilly Days, click HERE and select the MP3 of your choice (play 'em all!). I recommend "Make Like a Rock and Roll." It's the tune that Bill Haley missed!
Here's a special follow-up! Stu was amazed and pleased to hear from Don Woody himself very shortly after posting this story. Here's what he wrote:
Stu: The 2 ladies who run my website (Lotta and Kitti) forwarded your e-mail to me.
I want to thank you for writing such a great article. The interesting thing is that you got it all correct!! I don't know how you were able to dig up all that info, but I do appreciate it!
I am performing at the "Viva Las Vegas" weekend in April for the 1st time in over 45 yrs. I think it will be fun.
Sir, The Rivers salute you and wish you a rockin'great time at Viva Las Vegas this year!