I grew up in Houston, Texas, in the the sixties and seventies. The Houston music scene at the time was healthy, albeit somewhat undefined. Lightning Hopkins, Houston’s most famous bluesman, was feeling his oats. The Thirteenth Floor Elevators had a national hit. And when you turned on your radio and heard “This is Archie Bell and the Drells from Houston, Texas, y’all. Put that hamburger down and let’s all do the Tighten Up!” Well…you had to do what the man said, and get to dancin’.
Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt were writing songs there in the late sixties. Their presence gave way to a new and vibrant group of singer-songwriter folkies who emerged in the early to mid-seventies. Houston became a small haven for these young song slingers. Pool halls and beer joints abandoned their hardcore, country shuffle bands and started holding open mike nights. Don Sanders, Nanci Griffith, Lucinda Williams, Shake Russell, Eric Taylor, and Lyle Lovett were among this throng of troubadours who played for tips and beer in the neon coated Gulf Coast nightlife.
I loved them all. However, my favorite was the bearded blues rocker, John Vandiver. Short and squatty with round wire rim specs perched on a happy red nose, John looked to all the world like the son of Santa. He played big fat hollow body electric guitars that bounced on his jolly girth and shook the rafters when he broke into “Key to the Highway” by Big Bill Broonzy. He had a gentle speaking voice that turned into a golden megaphone when he belted out “Send Me to the Electric Chair” or “Saint James Infirmary”. His timing was atomic and the solos he played were melodic and rocking and unimaginable to me given that he played solo. John was equally magnetic when he fronted a band or was called up to lead a finale, but the magic was seeing one man make so much sound.
Vandiver was humble and gracious to other performers, whether he was giving a short history on the song he was about to perform or sharing the bill with national touring acts, he was more than generous. I remember seeing him open for Willis Alan Ramsey to a packed house. John started his set by explaining that he was the opening act and we could talk and scream to our hearts content while he was on stage. Then he paused and said, “Willis is the greatest thing going and you guys need to listen when he sings.” Of course as you can guess, John wound up doing three encores. So in the end it wasn’t just the music, it was the man and warmth and courage you could feel every time he took the stage.
John Vandiver was murdered in 1985 by some drug dealers who mistakenly thought he was the involved in a high level cocaine operation. When they realized their error and wound up empty handed, the dealers shot John and slayed his girlfriend.
Shortly after the tragedy, John’s friend, guitar maker Bill Collings packed up his one man shop and dedicated his life to helping the police find John’s killers. Collings could not stand to see the case go dark. He worked tirelessly with the Houston detectives until eventually the assailants were apprehended and sent to prison. Bill reopened his guitar shop and within a few years was making some of the finest guitars in the world. He still makes them today. You would have to ask Bill, but I believe Bill found his calling and his muse in the musical life and tragic death of his dear friend, John Vandiver.
Hank Garland was one of the first guitar players I ever listened to – along with Chet, Wes & Jimmy Bryant. “The Unforgettable Guitar Of Hank Garland” was for me, a very early introduction into jazz. Then I bought “Jazz Winds From A New Direction”. There may be a third album but I think that’s the extent of his solo output. Sadly, a car accident ended Hank’s career in his prime. I never knew Hank was primarily a country picker until years later – and an “A” team guy at that.
To this day those aforementioned albums still hold up. Just amazing playing. They offer up no clue that Hank’s main gig was as an ace country picker. I don’t know of any guitarist who could own either genre so completely.
I’m not really familiar with all that Hank did as a session player. However one session I heard years ago that must have been his was The Everly’s “Don’t Blame Me”. The guitar playing on that record is not only very jazz-like, but it is some of the most exquisitely tasteful, from-the-heart playing you’ll ever hear. Later, I had the chance to ask Harold Bradley (another unsung guitar hero) if that was Hank on that track and he confirmed it.
Although her outstanding recordings in the 1960s were critically acclaimed and she counted Dusty Springfield, the Hollies and Patti LaBelle among her fans and admirers, Brooklyn-born Evie Sands was the hard-luck girl of the era.
Songwriter Chip Taylor (“Wild Thing”) and guitarist Al Gorgoni (“Brown Eyed Girl”) teamed up with Evie in the mid 1960s and produced a string of singles for Lieber and Stoller’s Blue Cat label. The first, Take Me For A Little While, with an absolutely wonderful vocal, seemed to be a sure smash. Especially, as it turned out, to an unscrupulous promoter who took a test pressing over to the people working on Chess soul singer Jackie Ross’ followup to her monster hit “Selfish One”. A hastily recorded imitation version was released at the same time as Evie’s original. The subsequent litigation and confusion caused radio to back away and Evie’s version was only a regional hit.
Evie’s next single, Taylor and Gorgoni’s I Can’t Let Go, was caught up in the wake of the earlier fiasco and was relegated to an also-ran when the Hollies turned their version into an international hit.
In 1967, Sands and Taylor tried again with Angel of the Morning for Cameo Records. In its first week of release, the single was the most requested song on radio around the country. However, Cameo went bankrupt and copies of the single never made it to the stores. Several months later, Angel of the Morning was a huge hit for Merrilee Rush.
Finally, in 1969 Evie, teaming up again with Taylor & Gorgoni, had some success with Taylor’s Any Way That You Want Me which sold 500,000 copies and Rolling Stone called it one of the best singles of the year. An album of the same name sold modestly despite critical acclaim and Evie didn’t resurface until the mid 1970s when she scored two top 40 hits.
Evie then devoted her creative energies to songwriting, penning tunes for artists such as Barbara Streisand, Gladys Knight and Dusty Springfield but stayed out of the spotlight herself for many years.
A chance encounter with Taylor in 1996 led to a comeback album in 1998 called Women in Prison which featured a wonderful duet with Lucinda Williams. This led to a few appearances with Belle & Sebastian who, along with many others in the UK, had always loved those neglected singles from the 1960s.
I had the honor of being involved in the earliest days of Muscle Shoals Music. This is an area in NW Alabama that became known all over the world for the great records that were recorded there.
Some of the great people from the early days and beyond are – Arthur Alexander (who had the first Muscle Shoals R&B hit “You Better Move On”), Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Billy Sherrill, David Briggs, Norbert Putnam, Jerry Carrigan, Peanut Montgomery, Travis Wammack, Rick Hall, and later on the brilliant rhythm section of Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, Barry Beckett and Roger Hawkins. Then the late great Eddie Hinton arrived and the list goes on. But I’m not here to tell you about those guys. I want to tell you about an unsung hero, a man named Hollis Dixon.
Hollis started one of the first rock and roll bands around town and believe me, he always had the best. He had a great voice, but even more important he was the best front man that I have ever seen and that still holds true today. He was so funny and always great with the audience. Just about all of the musicians and songwriters that made their mark in Muscle Shoals and went on to be extremely successful were, at some point, in Hollis’ band. Hollis provided us with a gig that honed our skills and helped pay the bills until we could make a living writing our songs, playing sessions, publishing or producing records.
Hollis Dixon’s contribution to the growth of Muscle Shoals music was unprecedented. Whenever I hear “Whole Lot of Shakin”, “Blueberry Hill”, “Johnny B Good”, “Shout”, or “Suzie Q”, I remember fondly the years I spent in Hollis’ band. We must have played those songs a thousand times.
Hollis could definitely have had a successful career in the music business but his family was much more important to him. He and his beautiful wife Rae, raised three wonderful children. Really, you can’t get any more successful than that.
To Hollis, Thank you from all of us. Hollis Dixon 1935 – 2010.
I was a teenage guitar player in the waning days of my 60′s garage band years when I first heard the pedal steel guitar of Sneaky Pete Kleinow. I was immediately drawn to that sound. I didn’t really know what the hell it was at first but I sure wanted to find out. Sure I knew what a pedal steel guitar was, heard it a lot in country music but I never thought about trying to play the instrument myself. Sneaky Pete’s playing blew my mind the way Jimi Hendrix’s had — doors were opened I didn’t know existed. He was turning up on a lot of the records I listened to in those days. I picked up a lap steel and eventually did learn to play the pedal steel myself.
In retrospect, one thing I can hear now when I listen to stuff Pete recorded in the late 60′s and early 70′s was that he had one foot planted in tradition and the other firmly planted in the emerging world of contemporary rock and roll. On one hand he had been inspired by the peerless playing of Jerry Byrd, Speedy West, Ralph Mooney and other steel guitar players who had come before. He even played an 8 string Fender pedal steel, an instrument that was considered somewhat outdated at the time. But man, the things he could do with that instrument!
Sneaky Pete was a member of the first generation of players that made the switch from non pedal to pedal steel guitar. Like many of those pedal pioneers he developed his own unique style. He brought a real sense of adventure and experimentation to his playing using distortion, phaseshifting and delay effects to go along with the genre defying music that was so prevalent during that time. In my opinion Pete had an impeccable sense of timing, taste and tone not to mention his melodic sensitivity and inventiveness. As an unschooled, self taught musician he played everything straight from the heart. We are fortunate to have so many great examples of his beautiful playing on some classic recordings -
A few examples –
FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS
All tracks but particularly check out “Christine’s Tune”
“Take It Easy” and “Our Lady of the Well”
JONI MITCHELL “BLUE”
SNEAKY PETE KLEINOW “THE SHILOH RECORDS ANTHOLOGY”
Various instrumental tracks
Particularly check out “It Makes No Difference”, “Beat the Heat”, “Oklahoma Stomp”,
“Cannonball Rag”, “Sleepy Lagoon” and “Sneak Attack”