Roy Lanham: Country Meets Jazz

Yesterday’s piece about Noel Boggs made reference to Roy Lanham, who would later play guitar in the Sons of the Pioneers to pay the bills, yet sought much more fulfilling challenges in his own music’s attempt to straddle two distinct musical styles – country and jazz – despite the frustration of being considered too country for jazz fans and too jazzy for the country crowd.

“Eager Beaver”     Roy Lanham     1958

Roy Howard Lanham:  Lead Guitar
James Leon P. ‘JimmieWidener:  Rhythm Guitar
Arthur DouglasDougDalton:  Mandolin
DonaldDustyRhoads:  Bass

Rich Kienzle, in the liner notes for the Roy Lanham two-album CD reissue for 1958’s Sizzling Strings and 1963’s The Fabulous Guitar, points out Lanham’s unique contribution that set him apart from the other country-jazz guitar giants:

“The Lanham style, harmonically richer, combined both single-note passages with luxuriant chord melodies.  The vibrant four-part harmonies he created for his chord solos were his own idea, an improvement upon three-part harmonies he heard Western swing guitarist Sheldon Bennett play.”

From Kienzle’s liner notes I learned the following fascinating facts:

−  In 1943 Lanham would be drawn to Cincinnati’s 50,000-watt powerhouse, WLW, where he would work as a staff musician for the station’s various acts and later befriend Joe Maphis, Merle Travis, and Grandpa Jones.  Lanham would augment his income as a staff musician by playing on King recording sessions, most notably the Delmore Brothers, with “Freight Train Boogie” being the preeminent track.

−  WLW would also bring Roy Lanham together with Chet Atkins, and the two would unite in 1946 for a ‘Chester Atkins’ one-off single release, “Guitar Blues” b/w “Brown Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain,” on Nashville’s new indie label, Bullet.  Says Billboard, in its Nov. 30, 1946 edition:  “Majority of ‘Guitar Blues’ side allotted to guitars, with melody carried by twin guitars playing in bass and treble clef respectively.  It’s a swingy, pungent side for folk music, the brief sax solo adds little.”

−  Roy Lanham would also replace a hot-headed Jimmy Bryant, who had stormed off the Hometown Jamboree television show in 1955 for the last time.  Lanham would play instrumental duets from Bryant’s long-time partner, Speedy West, on “Hometown Jamboree,” but sadly, the two would never record together.

Speedy West & Roy Lanham use Fender guitars exclusively

Roy Lanham with Speedy West−  In 1959 Roy Lanham would overdub guitar parts onto a tape previously recorded by three Seattle high school teens, the Fleetwoods, accompanied only by car-key percussion.  This song, “Come Softly to Me,” would put the tiny Dolton label on the map.

−  Lanham, who had found plenty of work throughout his life as a session guitarist, once played a recording session with The Monkees.  Lanham would also perform on the final album of Tex Williams before his death in 1985.

Roy Lanham played in the Sons of the Pioneers from 1961 through 1986

Roy Lanham with Sons of PioneersDueling Fender guitars:  Roy Lanham’s 7-string vs. Andy Tielman’s 10-string

Roy Lanham 45

“Come Softly to Me”: Cinematically Recast

Crossing Delancey – a surprisingly compelling “small film” about a pickle salesman in pursuit of love – features a soundtrack sprinkled with songs by The Roches, highlighted by their endearing cover of The Fleetwoods’ #1 1959 hit, “Come Softly to Me,” the film score’s emotional centerpiece:

Neither The Roches nor their record label released this version as a single, although they could have.  The song originally appeared on their fifth and final LP for Warner Brothers, Another World, in 1985.

Suzzy Roche with Amy Irving in scene from Crossing Delancey

Suzzy Roche & Amy Irving

“Come Softly to Me” Fun Facts

  • The 7-inch 1959 single by The Fleetwoods was the first release for Dolphin Records, a label that would soon be rechristened Dolton (since Dolphin was already in use for a Laurie Records subsidiary label) and serve as home to The Ventures, Roy Lanham, Vic Dana, and Wanderers Three.
  • The Fleetwoods laid down the original backing track at home a cappella accompanied only by car key percussion.  The tape was later augmented in Los Angeles with light instrumentation, including acoustic guitar played by Dolton label co-founder, Bonnie Guitar.
  • Cover versions include Frankie Vaughn with The Kaye Sisters, Astrud Gilberto, Percy Sledge, Sandy Posey, The Tokens, The New Seekers, Bob Welch, and Buck Dharma from Blue Oyster Cult.

Pioneering Pop: Car Keys as Percussion

In November 1952 Wynonie Harris – with Sonny Thompson’s ensemble serving as his backing band – recorded three songs at Cincinnati’s King Studios, the most compelling one being “Greyhound.”

Wynonie Harris

Greyhound – Wynonie Harris

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to play “Greyhound” by Wynonie Harris.]

I love the driving rhythm that is augmented by a nice jingly set of car keys.  According to the liner notes in the Wynonie Harris CD anthology – Women, Whiskey & Fish Tails – this Amos Milburn cover became the highlight of Harris’s stage act:

“Purvis Henson, tenor saxophonist with the Buddy Johnson band, which backed Wynonie during a tour of the Midwest and South in the summer of 1953, remembers that Wynonie would start clapping his hands until the audience joined in, while the band played the chugging riff behind him.”

Could Wynonie Harris’s 1952 recording be the first pop recording that features car key percussion?

Bonus video link to a 78 recording of Amos Wilburn’s original version of “Greyhound” that features great bus sound effects – but alas, no car keys.