Thanks to the research staff at Ace Records for the great story behind Bill Clifton‘s attempt to cash-in on the initial Beatles hysteria, 1963’s “Beatle Crazy” – probably the only Beatle tribute song done in a talking blues style.
Clifton, who was born into a wealthy family in Baltimore County, Maryland (a jurisdiction, by the way, that does not overlap with Baltimore City), defied family expectations about his professional aspirations and chose to pursue his passion for bluegrass music, leaving West Virginia University to sign with Blue Ridge Records as part of the Dixie Mountain Boys and perform live on WWVA’s “Wheeling Jamboree” radio program in the 1950s.
In 1963, Clifton left the States and re-located in England, settling in Sevenoaks, just outside of London with his wife and four children. Under the stewardship of a talent manager named Pat Robinson, he began securing radio and TV spots and, with the field virtually to himself, bought a Stetson hat in a London store to add a touch of authenticity to his cod Western image.
In November 1963, Robinson took Clifton into Regent Sound, a low-budget studio in London’s Denmark Street favoured by the Rolling Stones, to record “Beatle Crazy”, a song penned by Geoff Stephens, a schoolteacher from Southend striving to make it as a songwriter. Though somewhat overshadowed by Dora Bryan’s “All I Want for Christmas Is a Beatle” (the first known Beatle tribute), “Beatle Crazy” notched up steady and substantial sales well into the New Year and went on to become Clifton’s calling card during his three-year English sojourn (it was released in the States in April 1964).
Clifton eventually returned to America where he continued to perform at bluegrass and folk festivals in his role as roving ambassador for the bluegrass cause. Geoff Stephens would go on to to pen many hits including “The Crying Game” and “Winchester Cathedral.”
“Beatle Crazy” does feature a few great lines – such as, “These guys between them, they sure got some hair. I’m losing mine, don’t seem fair” – but the knockout punch comes at the end of the song, literally, when chemical weapons become involved:
“Beatle Crazy” Bill Clifton 1963
A.P. Carter Befriends a College Kid Named Bill Clifton
Bill Clifton, lo and behold, is a minor character of interest in the real-life story of the Carter Family, who “won fame – if not fortune – because they could recast the traditional music of rural America for a modern audience,” so says Mark Zwonitzer in his indispensable, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music, co-written with Charles Hirshberg.
Twice a year, a check would arrive at Gladys [Carter]’s house from Southern Music Publishing [associated with Ralph Peer], and [Gladys’s daugher] Flo would pedal her bicycle up the Valley road to the [A.P. Carter] store to deliver the missive to her grandfather. Once, around 1950, Flo had presented an envelope to A.P., stood back while he opened it, and watched his face fall. “It was for ninety-six or ninety-eight dollars, less than a hundred anyway,” Flo remembers. In fact, through the [1950s] there were no re-releases of the Original Carter Family songs, even in the new postwar LP format. So there were small royalties from the Canadian Bluebird label and some small change from Carter songs that other artists recorded. Whenever a check arrived, no matter how small, A.P. dutifully calculated the three-way split, sent a third to Maybelle, a third to Sara, and kept his own portion. He’d still go out and do an occasional radio show, but not often, and rarely would he travel beyond Bristol or Kingsport. Sometimes fans would straggle into Maces Springs, but not many.
“I thought he was dead,” says Bill Clifton, who was a college freshman at the University of Virginia and a budding bluegrass guitarist in 1949. “I had checked with an RCA rep in my area to see why there weren’t any Carter Family LPs available. He said, ‘The old man died,’ so I presumed him dead. Then I was listening to Curly Lambert’s radio show in the autumn of 1949 and heard him say, ‘Don’t turn that dial. Everybody is in for a real big surprise. You’re not gonna believe who is here in the studio.'” Clifton stayed tuned, and after the break, Curly introduced his guest, “A.P. Carter, the man who started it all.”
“He did ‘Storms Are on the Ocean,’ says Clifton, “and then Curly says, ‘Don’t you be putting that overcoat on to go out. We want you to do another number.’“
The next spring, Bill drove 270 miles to Poor Valley to see if he could find the man who started it all. Off Highway 58 he followed an unfamiliar road down to Maces Springs, where he saw a little store with a sign on it, A.P. CARTER GROCERY. It was a bright spring day, middle of business hours, so of course the store was closed. Two doors down, on the other side of the road, Clifton found a man out mowing his lawn and asked him where he might A.P. Carter. Milan Millard [Gladys’s husband] pointed to the house, “He’s sitting on the couch right over there.” When Bill walked into the living room of the homeplace, he found A.P. Carter listening to the radio, and the two started talking about the music. “We just hit it off,” says Clifton. “He liked that the younger generation had an interest in the Carter Family-style music.”
When he could get free of his studies, Clifton started spending time in Maces with his new friend, A.P. Carter. Even at sixty, A.P. was a vital force. They’d be at the homeplace, or sitting around the store, and all of a sudden the old man would say, “Let’s go up to the spring and get a drink of water.” Then he’d take off into the foothills of Clinch Mountain, with his long-legged strides eating up chunks of real estate while Clifton, forty years his junior, panted and struggled to keep up. Sometimes Clifton and banjo player Johnny Clark would form a trio with A.P. and play on WKIN, Kingsport. “If we had been out playing late, we would come back and sleep in one of the two double beds in the store,” says Clifton. “We’d flop in one bed and he’d get in the other. And he didn’t always take off his shoes. Seems like we’d hardly get started sleeping, then five A.M., he’s up. ‘Let’s get up to the house and get breakfast.’ He always walked to Gladys’s house on the railroad tracks, never on the road.”
The other thing that struck Bill was the old man’s generosity. He had three tenant houses on the farm in Little Valley, and the renters were supposed to pay him half the earnings from their tobacco crops. [A.P.’s daughter] Janette was sure they were stealing from him, but A.P. never fussed. In fact, those tenants would come to the store every week and run up charges they’d never pay off. A.P. never seemed to get bothered by that, either. When longtime fans came around asking for records or song sheets, he’d get them something. If he didn’t have anything handy at the store, he’d go up to Gladys’s and check the cabinet of the old stand-up Victrola – the one the Peers had given them – to see if there were any 78s left in there. “He gave away anything,” Clifton says. “And he gave away everything. If you could pay for it, he might wait until you offered. If you didn’t, he’d just give it away for nothing. He’d be driving down the road around Mendota and see somebody walking, so he’d stop the car and say, ‘Wanna ride, boy?'”
Sometimes Gladys and Milan’s house as like a hotel. As a little girl, Flo was constantly being asked to wake up and give over her bed to somebody her grandfather brought home. They’d come for a night, or a week, or longer. The worst A.P. ever visited on them was a broke-down cowboy performer and trick-roper named Jimmy Riddle. “Jimmy Riddle lived with us the whole summer, and the only work he did was help Mom carry one tub of wash up from the cellar,” says Flo. “He’d chase down us kids and lasso us, or he’d knock a piece of paper out of our hands with a bullwhip. He was always knocking cigarettes out of somebody’s mouth with his bullwhip.”
A.P. didn’t mind. Besides, Jimmy was an entertainer like he was, and that meant something. Even into the fifties, ten years after the Original Carter Family had broken apart, A.P. stubbornly guarded his sense of himself as a viable musician and a man of import. Those days, he got up every day and put on a necktie. A niece remembers seeing him on a tractor, plowing, with his tie on. “He was handsome,” says his sister-in-law Theda Carter. “He walked straight and kept his head high.” Once in a while at rehearsals, in the middle of a hymn, out of nowhere, Pleasant Carter’s voice would rise trembling above the entire gathering and take over a song. People would turn and watch.
Even when he wasn’t making much music, A.P. always kept up with the entertainment business, listening daily to WKIN, Kingsport. One day, after hearing that the gospel harmony group out of Texas, the Chuck Wagon Gang, was to play at a school in Kingsport, he asked Bill Clifton to drive him over to the show. A.P. thought he might be related to the Gang. They had the same last name, and he’d had a great-uncle move out of Scott County and go to Texas. A.P. figured they were cousins, somehow.
When Bill and A.P. got over to Kingsport that night, it was storming, so there they stood at the front entrance of the school, an unlikely pair. Clifton, a short and stocky twenty-four-year-old marine with him head shaved like a cue ball, and Pleasant, at sixty-three, still pushing six-two, rail thin, in an overcoat and a felt hat. Clifton tried to hurry the old man through the front door, with the rest of the crowd, but A.P. Carter wasn’t going with the rest of the crowd.
“No,” he said, “musicianers always go in the back.”
The two men walked all the way around to the back of the auditorium, and Pleasant started tapped gingerly on the door, to no avail. He tapped again. Nothing. Nobody came. Clifton tugged at his sleeve, but A.P. Carter was not going through that front door. “Musicianers always go in the back,” he repeated. Besides, he told Clifton, the promoter, Wally Fowler, would know him. And so he kept tapping on the stage door while the rain poured down, and his felt hat drooped around his ears. Clifton was completely soaked and agitating to go back around front. But Pleasant stood his ground. “They’ll see us directly,” he said. “Wally Fowler will let us in.”
It was more than ten minutes before one of the musicians came to the door: “Can I help you, old-timer?”
“I want to see the head man,” said A.P.
“Who should I tell him wants to see him?”
“You can tell him A.P. Carter. I reckon you’ve heard of the Original Carter Family.” Clifton watched the guy’s eyes grow big as saucers. And A.P. Carter walked proudly through the back door, like musicianers do.
“He always considered himself a professional,” says Clifton. “And he always wanted to get back into music more.” The continuing success of the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle kept him wondering what might have been if his own family had stayed together.
Bill Clifton: America’s Bluegrass Ambassador to the World by Bill C. Malone
“Born into a prominent Maryland family, Clifton connected with old-time music as a boy. Clifton made records around earning a Master’s degree, fifteen years in the British folk scene, and stints in the Peace Corps and Marines. Yet that was just the beginning. Closely allied with the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, Mike Seeger, and others, Clifton altered our very perceptions of the music–organizing one of the first outdoor bluegrass festivals, publishing a book of folk and gospel standards that became a cornerstone of the folk revival, and introducing both traditional and progressive bluegrass around the world. As Malone shows, Clifton clothed the music of working-class people in the vestments of romance, celebrating the log cabin as a refuge from modernism that rang with the timeless music of Appalachia.
An entertaining account by an eminent music historian, Bill Clifton clarifies the myths and illuminates the paradoxes of an amazing musical life.”