I found an album from the early 70s at a record swap whose compelling story on the back cover I immediately latched onto due primarily to my interest in the King Records legacy – and secondarily to the groovy day-glo cowboy backdrops:
“Otis Williams . . . another black country singer? The name Otis Williams may ring a bell if you’re also a pop music fan. He had such hits as ‘Ivory Tower,’ ‘Ling Ting Tong’ and ‘Hearts Made of Stone.’ Back in the 50s he tried to persuade King Records to record him country, so you might have heard Otis Williams sing country before and didn’t realize it. He was the guy who sang country harmony on most of the country hits from King Records. The closest he came to cutting a country song was ‘Hearts Made of Stone’ and it was a million pop seller.
“In early 1960 he went to Epic Records [imprint of Columbia] with still a burning desire to be a country singer. He recorded [Patsy Cline hit] ‘I Fall to Pieces,’ it was a great production, but it wasn’t a country record. Now he’s with us here at Stop Records and he still wants to sing country. I wanted something a little different, more than just another black singer, so Otis formed an all black country band, which he named the Midnight Cowboys. These are the musicians that played behind a lot of the country artists in the Cincinnati, Ohio area. No this isn’t just another black country singer, it’s a man who has done what he has been trying to do for many years, and he does it as well as any country singer I’ve heard.”
Pete Drake, President – Stop Records [liner notes on back cover]
According to the Real Mr. Heartache blog, the thrust of the story is complete bunk – a bald-faced attempt to stoke controversy in order to increase sales.
The real story, according to Mr. Heartache, is that Williams had relocated to Nashville to work as a talent scout and shared an office with songwriter, Tom T. Hall, who at the time was working as a booking agent:
“Pete Drake, who would write those dubious liner notes, came through the office one day and convinced Williams to try his hand at country music for his label Stop Records. There was no all black Cincinnati country band and The Midnight Cowboys was pure invention, named after the popular movie. Louis McQueen does not play the fiddle and Bennie Wallace sat behind the steel guitar just for the photo shoot.
“The sessions took place at Music City Recorders and were produced by Drake and Elvis’ former guitarist, Scotty Moore . . . The rest of the sessions are an uncredited mix of Nashville studio cats and Williams current touring band, The Endeavors.
“The closest thing Williams would come to a hit country record, though, was with ‘I Wanna Go Country,’ which in May of 1971 peaked at 72 on the charts. It was a novelty number written by Charlie Monk and Jim Owen that was a bit too jokey to be taken seriously. The single should have been his office mate’s [Tom T. Hall’s] ‘How I Got To Memphis.’”
I agree – “How I Got to Memphis” is definitely one of the best tracks on the album.
So is Otis’s playful take on Jimmie Rodgers’ signature holler, “Blue Yodel # 8” – more commonly known as “Mule Skinner Blues.” As Robert Christgau cogently observes, Charley Pride “would never deliver the ‘come here boy’ in ‘Mule Skinner Blues’ with such sarcastic relish” as Otis Williams:
“Mule Skinner Blues” Otis Williams & the Midnight Cowboys 1971
I love the bit of marketing on the front cover -“Stereo-monic: This Record Provides Both Stereophonic and Monaural Sound Reproduction.” Also interesting to note that this 1971 album follows on the heels of producer Pete Drake’s sessions for George Harrison’s 1970 debut (triple) album, All Things Must Pass, where Drake played pedal steel.
Bonus video link to Dolly Parton singing “Mule Skinner Blues” on The Porter Wagoner Show.