Confessions of a Failed Songwriter
Dick Curless in the 1960s
Tombstone Every Mile - my video story of how Tombstone became a top Nashville hit
In the beginning there was Dick Curless
by Bill Russo
I have been around success in the music business. One of the most famous trucking songs in history started in my little radio studio in the 1960s when I interviewed a long and lean singer from the West of Northern Maine.
After meeting Dick Curless, I put his little 45 rpm record on my turntable and introduced him to the good folks of towns like Frenchville, Madawaska, St. David, Grand Isle, Fort Kent, Caribou, and Presque Isle.
Within weeks my one spin had been multiplied a million times and the shy singer from Fort Fairfield was on his way to stardom in Nashville.
My Hubpages article, "Dick Curless, the Forgotten Baron of Country Music", I am proud to say, is cited as one of the sources for the Wikipedia article on Maine's greatest singer.
The Road to Nashville for 'Tombstone' started here, 350 Miles North of Montreal
Jammin' with Vince at the Juke Joint
The Road Warrior, still available from the oldest Rockabilly still rockin'
The call him Sleepy cause his eyes are half closed
In the 1970s I was lucky enough to have Sleepy LaBeef as a neighbor and got to know the Rockabilly legend.
Because somehow, there never was a recording studio large enough to hold his talent, the big man from Smackover, Arkansas – he’s about seven feet tall counting the hat – never found as much success on vinyl, tape, and CDs as he did in his high energy live shows.
Still touring and singing as he closes in on 80, Sleepy is the classic definition of the musician’s musician. In the 50’s he opened for Elvis. He recorded for Sun Records of Memphis, Tennessee along with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison and many other kings of Country and Rock.
Sleepy on Conan with the Max Weinberg crew
"I'm going to be on Conan tomorrow Bill"
I had a part time job in a filling station in the 1970s and Sleepy used to come in to gas up his fleet of vintage 1950s Cadillacs. One night he informed me that he was going to be on the Conan O'Brien show the following evening, so he wanted to fill his tank, check the oil and such. I looked at his old Caddy and said, "You're not going to try to get from Massachusetts to New York City in that Sleepy?"
The hurt in the big guy's eyes made me regret saying it even before the words came out of my mouth. He loved that old car. One time, we went to his house to get a copy of his latest tape (this was back before CDs) and I was amazed to see that he had a semi circle driveway. It was not the semi circle that was astonishing, it was that both sides of the driveway were lined with old 1955 and 1956 Cadillacs. Sleepy was a Caddy hoarder ! !!
Sleepy did drive his old buggy to the Big Apple and I think you will agree, if you watched the video, that he knocked 'em dead. Max and company was lovin' it. The song was made famous by an amazing woman you might want to do a little research on, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. While you're at it, see if you can find a copy of Sleepy's Strange Things are Happening Album, made in Boston. It's a truly fine example of the work of a living legend.
Diana Ross from the Chet Krully days, 1970s
Crossing The Line
In the 1990s I was a student of and a friend to, perhaps the most interesting musician of all times. Though his name may not be familiar, his work certainly is. His names, real and stage, were Chester Krolelewicz, Chet Krully, and Chet Kruley.
In the 1940s, fresh out of high school, Chet packed up his Stromberg guitar, made in Boston, and boarded the Northeast Flyer. His destination – the color line ! !!
Young Chet was determined to be the first white person to cross the reverse color barrier. He did it too, when Fletcher Henderson hired him for his big band. For a few years until the group broke up, Chet lived the life of a man who couldn’t sleep in ‘white’ hotels, use ‘white’ telephones or ‘white’ bathrooms. He ate and stayed where-ever his band mates did.
Chet told me many stories of the big band days, one of which I’ll relate. It’s just a tiny slice of life, but it illustrates how difficult it was for the black musicians during the 1940s and 50s.
In Chet’s words:
“We got off the train in Fayetteville or one of the other towns on the main railroad line that heads to Miami. The guys wanted a cup of coffee really bad, but there was only one place around that was open and of course it was for whites only. So, I said to the boys,
‘Hang on gents, I got this. I’ll be right back.’
I strode right in to that restaurant and walked up to the counter and told the waitress, ‘I want some coffee. Twelve cups to go!’
She gave me a dirty look, especially when she saw that peering through the window were 11 pairs of bright white eyes staring out of 11 black faces. But she put the coffee into paper cups without a word. I paid her, gave her a 25 cent tip, and went out to share the coffee with my pals.”
Chet never got discouraged about anything. He was the most optimistic man I have ever met, as illustrated by another story he told me:
“I was in the tenth grade in Boston and I wanted to be in the high school band. When I got to the tryouts the leader of the band asked me what instrument I played. When I told him guitar, he told me to get lost.
‘There’s no guitar in bands’, he scorned.
‘There’s going to be, I told him’.
“And sure enough in just a few years Benny Goodman hired Charlie Christian, a black man, to play guitar in his otherwise all-white band. And there was me (Chet Krully) in Fletcher Henderson’s otherwise all black-band,”
“Benny Goodman was an amazing musician,” Chet said. "He cared nothing about race or color, just music. When Fletch had to close down one of his early bands, Benny Goodman hired him as an arranger and Mr. Henderson pretty much invented swing music all by himself.”
Time may have passed over the memory of Fletcher Henderson and his music, but Chet never forgot him. Many years after he had toiled in Henderson’s big band, Chet found out that the grave of his old boss was in sad condition. Chet provided the money for the restoration and permanent care of the grave and the Henderson family plot. You can see the restoration at www,findagrave.com.
After working with the Henderson aggregation, Chet went on to play in several other well known groups, but found his biggest success relatively late in life. Despite being a balding, graying man, Diana Ross chose him as her lead guitarist. He was with her at the height of her success – during the period of her award winning performance as Billie Holiday in “Lady Sings the Blues”.
When the aging Chet Krully fronted the Diana Ross band it was very rare to see anyone over the age of 30 in a rock group. It is quite common today to see old people still performing. The efforts of the Rolling Stones being one example: though one wag is reported to have said that their ‘Steel Wheels’ tour should have been called the ‘Steel Wheel-chair tour.” Another critic said that his grandfather had seen Jagger and Richard before they actually did turn to stone!”
Enough bashing of perhaps the world’s greatest band, with due respect to the Bee Gees, Alabama, Beatles, and J Geils.
After retiring from live performances, Chet became a respected teacher of guitar at several schools including the world famous Berklee College of Music in Boston.
As I stated several paragraphs ago, I have been around success in the music business, but as of yet nothing has rubbed off on me.
Chet and I both agreed that I was the worst guitar student he ever had, but the best listener to his stories. I never told Chet, but I only took the lessons to hear the stories! My tribute to Mr. K is featured in the Hub "Breaking the Color Barrier in 1940s Dance Bands" and also in my Amazon book, "Crossing the Musical Color Line".
Conway and daughter Joni - Their duet was a top hit
Joni Lee and Conway Live Performance!
Dick Summer, author of The Lovin' Touch in the WBZ days
Top Hit on The Country and Hot 100 Charts
1959 When Conway out-Kinged the King of Rock n Roll
In 2016 my song was recorded by David Lipari Jr
Ed Penny's Somebody's Knockin', sung by Terri Gibbs
Ready or Not - Here Comes my Song
My main focus in music was lyric writing and I had one brief whiff of what it would be like to join Nashville’s elite.
The number one Country and Western singer in the 1970s was Conway Twitty. Hello Darlin’ and You’ve Never Been This Far Before, were just two of his number one hits of the era. Conway had close to 60 chart toppers.
If Twitty sang your song, it was virtually guaranteed to fly to the ultimate spots on both Cashbox and Billboard. There were a few problems for me. The chief roadblock was that I lived in the Boston area, where everybody at the time thought that Willie Nelson was Ricky’s older brother on the Ozzie and Harriet TV show.
Yet there was a guy in Boston radio, named Dave Maynard, who was similar to Benny Goodman. He didn’t care if a song was country, a polka, or a jig. If he liked it, he liked it. He also happened to be a very influential disc jockey with nationwide connections.
He was close friends with the president of Warner Brothers, Electra and, Atlantic records; Joe Smith, who was the number one disc jockey in early Boston Rock n Roll radio.
Another of his best buds was the noted Nashville composer/producer Ed Penny who worked with Ann Murray, Barbara Mandrell, Jim Ed Brown, Glenn Campbell and Lee Greenwood (God Bless the U.S.A.) among many others. Penny was another early Boston Disc Jockey who kept in touch with the happenings in the Hub (old time nickname for Boston).
I didn’t know Dave Maynard, who at the time was doing the fabled overnight show at 50,000 watts, WBZ, one of the nation’s biggest radio stations from the early 1900s up to the 2000s. Those who had anchored the overnight spot included the poet Dick Summer, the funny man Larry Glick and the old philosopher Norm Nathan.
Dave Maynard ably carried on the tradition of those who came before him and had a vast audience in 38 states and perhaps a few un-named planets.
As stated, I had never met Dave Maynard, but that did not stop me from calling him one early morning about two hours after midnight and informing him live, on the airwaves of that powerhouse radio station, that I had just written Conway Twitty’s next number one hit.
Dave was interested enough to have me recite the lyrics. He liked them. He liked them so much that he recorded them and told me to call him back the next night.
Those 24 hours that I had to wait crawled by more slowly than a turtle crossing a footpath. Finally the appointed time came and I called the special number he had given me that allowed me to get on the air without going through a queue.
He informed me that he had called his buddy Ed Penny in Nashville and that Ed liked the song and would talk to Conway Twitty about it. Ed was planning to write the music to the lyrics, a task easily within his grasp as he already had penned a top ten hit and had several other successful tunes as well.
Over the next few weeks, things moved slowly as these things always do. As the time dragged by, my hopes started turning sour faster than one of those green bananas that you buy which gets yellow the next day and becomes a rotting brown incubator of fruit flies before you get a chance to eat it.
Dave told me that he still loved the song, but Ed Penny had put a hold on it because he had found a remarkable young blind singer who was sent to him by guitar guru Chet Atkins. Penny had become her manager and was busily writing material for his 'discovery'. My song did not fit what Ed Penny planned for her. Ed wanted something hard and edgy. He wrote just such a song for her called, “Somebody’s Knocking”. The song and Terri Gibbs went to the top of the charts and Ed was far too involved as her personal manager to devote any time to my song.
Ed stayed on as Terri’s manager for several more years before leaving the music business and opening a record store in Nashville. He passed away at the age of 89 in early 2015.
The decades went by and nobody ever picked up my song. In 2016 the tune finally was recorded by David Lipari Jr. Click the Youtube link to hear David give it American Idol treatment.
Waylon Jennings - known to some only for his hands shown on TV while he sang the Dukes Theme Song
'Wailin' with Waylon, Cash, Kristofferson, and ol' Willie
Tom T. Hall - I Love, little baby ducks, old pickup trucks....
Mel overcame a stuttering problem by singing, and how he can sing!
Here are two of my 1960s works
For what it’s worth – and it apparently isn’t much….here are a few of my song lyrics from the 1950s and 60s.
Up first is the work that I wrote for the late Conway Twitty. It is titled, “Home is Where My Heat Is”
If there were a video of the song, it would show a man and a woman at a breakfast table. Bare of food, there would be only a cup of coffee in front of each of them. The man is looking down, his chin on his chest. There’s a tear in his eye as he lifts his head and sings…….
“I know last night you heard me sneak in.
It was two a.m. when I creeped in.
When I got beneath the cover,
You could tell that I had another.
You pretended you were sleeping,
But I heard your muffled weeping.
Now in the cold light of morning,
I know I’ve had my last warning.
But, I’m begging you.
Don’t throw me out again.
Home is where the heart is
And mine was home by ten
Don’t look for reasons in your mirror
Just look at me to see who is in error.
I can be thinking of you
then I get lost in the brew
I know I look at all the pretty flowers
And I have picked me quite a few
But darlin’ no other love’s like ours
And I am now pleading with you
Please don’t throw me out again
Give me one last, last chance
Cause home is where the heart is
And mine is always home by ten
I had a thought for a song that would contrast New England with the Southland, the beating heart of Western and Country music. I wish I could say that I wrote Reba McIntyre’s smash “Whoever’s in New England” but I can’t.
My North South lyrics were pretty lame…..
The setting is Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1960s. The whole world is caught up in the folk craze. Peter Paul and Mary are the top act in the business. Dylan is starting to become recognized as the poet of the new generation, a title he relinquished at the Newport Folk Festival when he turned on the electricity in his guitar and turned off the folk crowd, many of whom walked out in disgust.
The singer of my song does not dislike folk music and doesn’t care about Dylan one way or the other. He’s a dispatcher in a long haul trucking company and every night when he sends the drivers over the road, he wishes it was he in the trucks with the big wheels turning.
There’s no country music in Boston.
You can’t wear a cowboy hat. He says to a friend,
I’ve gotta get to Nashville.
I’ve gotta be with my own kind.
If I don’t get to music city,
I’m gonna lose my mind.
Each night I work the dispatch
Sending trucks across our land
Sending freight to every state
With a touch of my hand
My computer knows the charges
And even types out the freight bill
For ten reels of steel to Detroit
Or forty feet of shoes for Nashville
I hand over the manifest
To a driver to move the load
And I wish it were me
That was wheelin’ down the road
Oh why was I born in Boston
Where they think a steel guitar
Is nothing but a stolen fender
And there ain’t no country bars.
Five nights a week truckloads of
Shoes I send for Nashville’s feet
And think the shoes are so lucky
To be walkin’ on music city streets
Why was I born in Boston
Where they think that wailin’ means cryin’
And when I say Tom T. Hall is a star
They think I’m just fibbin' and lyin’.
Sure they have heard of Dolly
Think she’s outstanding in her field
But they have never really heard her sing
They can’t get their eyes unpeeled.
They think Moe Bandy is with Curley and Larry
Eddie Rabbit they only know
Cause he sang for Dirty Harry
And Mel Tillis cause he t-talks so slow.
Oh why was I born in Boston?
When I talk about ol’ Willie
They remember his brother Rick
And they think Hee Haw is just silly.