Dick Curless: The Forgotten Baron of Country Music
WSJR the little station in Maine that first played "Tombstone"
Dick Curless in 1965
The WSJR Program Director left Maine and became the top Dee Jay at Radio London
by Bill Russo
Dick Curless didn't live long enough to cash even one Social Security check. He passed away in 1995 at the age of 63 after a battle with stomach cancer.
It has been less than twenty years since he died, why then has he been forgotten? Anybody who ever drove a truck or wanted to, or whoever worked on a farm, knew Dick Curless' signature song - 'A Tombstone Every Mile'.
I am proud to say that I was there at the birth of that song and saw it nourished and grow into one of the biggest truck-driving' hits of all time. I am going to post a video of the tune and tell the story of the man and his craft - but first some background.
If you look at a map of Maine, you probably won't be able to find where Dick Curless was born. That's because most maps, cut off the top of the state and put it on a separate page. That cut-off part is what the locals call "The County." Aroostook County - a largely uninhabited expanse of thickly wooded hills and valleys that is bigger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. The population of this vast area is only about 73,000. Presque Isle is the biggest city with over 9,500 residents. Caribou is next with about 8,000 people and the town where Dick was born, Fort Fairfield has a population of 3,500.
While there are not many people in this area, there are lots of potatoes. There are so many potato farms that in late September the schools shut down for three weeks so that the children can help with the harvest. In the 1960s every spud was picked by hand from cold clumps of earth and put in a barrel. Kids and grandparents would battle each other to see how many barrels they could pick in a day. Pay was something like 25 cents a barrel. Even today there are still farms that pick by hand, but most use mechanized harvesters. Kids still get out of school for three weeks though.
Fort Fairfield potato field
Truck drivers used to haul the loads from 'The County' to market in Boston - a trip of almost 500 miles over some of the most dangerous roads in the nation. The route that passes by the village of Haynesville (population 112) was especially tricky and it was this highway that inspired 'Tombstone Every Mile'. The hairpin turn by Haynesville is the most treacherous part of the haul. One report posted on the internet said that 13 lives have been lost at that curve.
This is the culture which surrounded the young Dick Curless. Hard work. Not much television - before cable, the TV signals had great difficulty getting through the mountains. Dick's father was a heavy equipment operator and part time musician. The younger Curless began singing and playing at an early age and even hosted a radio gig while still a teenager. Despite a chronic illness that plagued him through his career, Dick was drafted and spent 1952 to 1954 in Korea, driving army trucks and often getting to entertain the troops on Armed Forces Radio. When he got back to the states in 1954 he had a shot at fame and fortune when he appeared on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scout program. He got a few bookings and had a few regional releases but went all through the rest of the 50's and the first half of the 1960's with little success.
About the time Dick was getting ready to receive his big break, I had become involved in a pioneering venture in the northernmost town in the 48 contiguous United States - Madawaska. It sits at the very top of Aroostook County, which sits at the very top of Maine. Madawaska is so Northerly - that, if you drive Southwest for about three hundred miles, you will land in Montreal. More than 80% of the town's 5,000 people speak French at home and in school. So somebody had the genius idea to start an English speaking radio station in this town that is spread across a couple miles of the American bank of the St. John River. On the other side, is the New Brunswick city of Edmunston - where everybody speaks French.
I was the morning DJ on the station -WSJR-, signing on at six a.m. with the Star Spangled Banner, an "everybody up and attem", and a rousing rendition of 'Stars and Stripes Forever' - as I invited everybody to march around the breakfast table.
The citizens may not have spoken great English and probably didn't understand all of what I was saying, but they sure liked The Beatles, 'Helvis' (that's the Cajun pronunciation), Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, and whatever else was at the top of the charts. Being located about ten hours away from Boston made it hard to get all of the hits, but we had some help.
Bob Clayton of WHDH (Boston Ballroom) provided me with some of the hot 45's, others were sent by record companies, and some we purchased ourselves.
For a time we had a DJ who came from New York City and every week his Mom sent a care package of the 45's we were not otherwise able to obtain.
Somehow, with the blessings of the angel who founded the station, Mr. Vaughn Currier, of the Maine Public Service Company (the electric company) we kept the station on the air and had pretty fair success generating advertising revenue. People began talking about us and we had a decent following all the way to Fort Kent and on down to Frenchville. Playing mostly Rock , we slipped in a good amount of country crossover stuff like Sonny James, Johnny Cash, Skeeter Davis, George Jones, etc.
The local J C Penny's put in a rack of 45s and they sold out just about everything that they were able to bring in. We even started to get fan letters and people visiting the studio.
One morning near the end of my shift at 10, the station secretary came in to the studio. -"There's a man outside who has a record he wants you to play," she said.
"Well if it is a French record, please tell him that we appreciate it but we only play English records," I said. There were a number of area groups who were recording, but all of them were in French and they were playing 1940s music.
"No," she responded, "he's American. I think he's a cowboy."
"Okay, send him in.", I decided.
I was not prepared for who came through the door. Tall and spare - the man was sporting brown jeans and shirt with a string tie and ten gallon hat and fancy boots that seemed to bring him up to about six and a half feet tall.
"My name is Dick Curless and I am a singer from right here in the County," he told me in a soft voice that was as deep as a well that doesn't dry up even in a heat wave. "I've got a new song here, I'd love for you guys to play. It's about trucking and its about potatoes and it's about Maine."
He handed me a disc that proclaimed "Allagash Records" presents "Dick Curless and A Tombstone Every Mile". He explained to me that he was from Fort Fairfield and he and his partner had started the new record company themselves, pressing the discs and even distributing it themselves.
I gave the '45' a quick preview and instantly fell in love with it. Moments later, I introduced Dick Curless to the St. John Valley and played the record on the air for the first time..
Here's the song and my story of how it became a hit
The Music Spreads Beyond The County
We played the song probably a dozen more times that first day and reaction was immediate. Dick drove down to Penny's and sold them a trunk full of records and he headed off for Presque Isle to see if the WAGM jockeys would play it. They did. WFST in Caribou picked it up. On he went, all the way down to Bangor where WABI played it . Dick marched into Portland and they spun it. Everywhere he went Dick sold a trunkful of records and people began to notice the little country Truckin' tune from Maine. . The Boston stations got involved and then Capitol Records came into the picture. They bought Allagash records and signed Dick to a multi - record deal and "Tombstone" became a top five country hit all over the nation. During the next couple decades Dick placed almost two dozen more songs in the top forty.
I want to clarify something about the eye patch. He did not wear it in the 50s and 60s...as you will note in the 1965 photo. In the late 1980s I saw him at a State Fair and he was wearing the patch, but it seemed to be the least of his health problems. He did not go into detail, except to say that he had fought the battle of the bottle and was on the verge of being knocked out, but when he was down for about a nine count, he found Jesus and his life was saved and he found sobriety.
Pete Hoppula has written a fine bio posted on the internet that says Dick always had a bad eye and a bad heart. I knew about the heart problems that had plagued him even before he went into the service, but I didn't know anything about the bad eye.
At that show in the late 80s's Dick went on stage before a full house and sang stately and sedately. He was very good, but he was a changed man. He sang "Since I Met You Jesus", to the tune of the Ivory Joe Hunter Classic, "Since I Met You Baby". Some people did not like it.
"Sing the 'Ice Man'," somebody shouted. Dick ignored the request for the 'off color' party tune that had been a popular feature of his live shows for many years. Pressure grew as the call for the raunchy ditty was taken up by more and more people.
"Come on!!! , Sing the Freakin' Ice Man!!!," they persisted, getting noisier and rowdier.
"I don't sing those songs any more," Dick patiently and quietly stated. There was a sadness about him that saddened me. He stilled the crowd and won them over with two of his best songs. He performed " Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee Juke Box Man " and closed out to enthusiastic applause with "Tombstone".
As long as he lived, he never again performed the "Ice Man" and I respect him for it. But I also think that the song is hilarious and harmless, so I hope that he wouldn't be offended if I post it for you to hear. I am also prompted to post it because of Boston radio great, Norm Nathan , who always advised, "Leave the world a little sillier than you find it." So here's "The Iceman". Please let me know if you like it.
Dick's Biggest Live Hit was the rowdy Ice Man song
Dick Curless 1980's
The Jukebox Man
The Baron sings"The Baron" - introduced by Buck Owens
Haynesville Road-Hairpin Turn Claims 13 Lives
Well that's about it. I hope you will enjoy discovering or re-discovering Dick Curless. Just a couple more things. Some reissues of "Tombstone" have cut out the swirling wind at the beginning of the song. If there is no wind, it is not the original.
If you live in Miami and feel like a little road trip, just get on Route One and you can drive all the way to the very beginning of the Road in Fort Kent, Maine.It's only 2,312 miles. After going about 1,900 miles you will think you have traveled back in time, for you will be near the Haynesville Woods and 'The County' where the forests are still as they were in the year 1600.
Keep on driving another hundred miles then pull off the road for a quick meal of a County Hot Dog. It's a treat unlike any hot dog you have had. In Northern Maine, they are RED and delicious.
Go another few hundred miles and you will start to see a fair number of moose and deer along the roadways...slow down..you don't want to hit one of them.
If you have a taste for venison, and moose, there are plenty of eating places in the county where you can find them and other game on the menus. There are many bootleg places and private clubs catering to eaters and drinkers - but you'd have to email me for that info: it cannot be published.
If you would like to fly into the County, come to the Presque Isle airport....there's a 7000 foot runway and the planes need every single foot, because there is a mountain at the end of it. And when you fly in during the winter, you'll enjoy they way the plane slips and slides along those 7,000 feet of runway before finally swaying to a stop.. Did I mention they get a lot of snow in "the County" and it can get to twenty below on a sunny January day?
Famous people from Madawaska, Maine. Clarence White of the Byrds. (He's really Clarence LeBlanc). Almost everybody up there is a LeBlanc, a Daigle, a Pelletier, or similar name.
Also from Madawaska is John Vollman. He invented a little product called Jade East Cologne. In the 60s everybody was wearing that new exotic Asian scent - they had no idea that it was bottled on Main Street in the Northern most town in the contiguous 48 states - Madawaska.
Ces't Tout. Au Revoir Mes Amis.
Bob King's version of Don Peters' hit - Working on the County Road
Dick Curless singing County Road repurposed as "County Bank"
Dick Curless' amazing story is one chapter of "Crossing the Musical Color Line and other Adventures of Singers and Players", by Bill Russo. In 134 pages, the reader gets to meet some of the greatest figures in music. Some are famous while others never achieved great commercial success but all have fascinating back stories. Some of the artists were friends of the author, such as the first man to break the color line in a big band in the 1940s. There are more than a dozen narratives in the book, which is just 99 cents. It's available in the Kindle Store for 99 cents. http://www.amazon.com/dp/ B00PJQQHSO
Below, is a video of "Two Timing to a Two Step", written by Don Peters of Caribou, Maine for Lloyd Snow, a great traditional country singer from Canada. Don also wrote a song for Dick Curless: and there's a pretty interesting story behind that song, called "Working on the County Road". Read that story on Hubpages. It asks the question, "How Long are you Willing to Chase Your Deam?" Follow the link below to read Don's story....(It's also included in the book)
Here's the link that will tell you about a country singer who's got the chops of George Jones, Conway Twitty and Hank Snow, all rolled into one!!!!! Read about and listen to, Lloyd Snow: