Charlie Feathers

TrackAlbum / Single
A Wedding Gown Of WhiteSun 231
Tongue-Tied JillMeteor 5032
One Hand LooseKing 45-4997
Bottle To The BabyKing 45-4997
Why Don't YouKay 1001
Uh Huh HoneyGone, Gone, Gone CD
I Forgot To Remember To ForgetFour Legends Of Rock 'n' Roll
Gone And Left Me BluesRecorded at Phillips Studio 1980
We Can't Seem To Remember To ForgetCharlie Feathers
Defrost Your HeartCharlie Feathers

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Charlie Feathers photo

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Well you pick the tune, and you slap the bass; I’ll play the rhythm and I’ll set the pace. But we gotta get with it, got no time to waste.

Charlie Feathers – no-hit-wonder, fabulist extraordinaire, rockabilly superhero, yesterday’s man, the guy who had to leave Sun to record rockabilly, he who just kept on rocking and/or, “a country singer of no special talent”. There’s an element of truth in all of those descriptions except the last few words which represent the opinion of Greil Marcus as documented in “Mystery Train”. Mind you, Greil did ever so slightly row back from that comment particularly in those massive “Notes and Biographies” in the book wherein he made reference to a couple of obscure late period Feathers tracks as “spooky, sensuous, fragile performances that have no parallel in rockabilly”.

Charlie was born in Slayden, Mississippi about 50 miles southeast of Memphis on 12th June 1932. He was raised on a diet of Bill Monroe and Hank Williams, plus, more surprisingly, Junior Kimbrough who gave him early guitar lessons. Like many he made a beeline for 706 Union Avenue, Memphis aka the Sun Studios. However, Charlie got there before 99% of the others i.e. prior to hearing those magic Presley Sun sides. Reportedly it was none other than Howlin’ Wolf who pointed him in the direction of Sun. At the time Sam Phillips was cutting records from the Wolf and leasing them to Chess Records for distribution. Later, of course, the Wolf moved to Chicago.

In his early days with Sun, Charlie was something of an odd job man, providing session support, song writing including creating demo discs, and arranging. That ‘arranging’ word is somewhat controversial however. In interviews later in his career Charlie claimed credit for the arrangement of the B-side of Presley’s first single, Blue Moon Of Kentucky, to have been involved in the production and/or arrangement of certain other Presley singles and to have shown Jerry Lee how to play pumping piano! None of this has been corroborated by Elvis, Scotty, Bill or Sam Phillips (let alone Jerry who would have been pretty unlikely to have given anyone credit in my view) but it’s hard to deny the possibility of some involvement from Charlie at maybe a minor level, given his recognised love for Bill Monroe’s music and his, relatively unusual, good understanding of blues styling. There is a fascinating vid on YouTube of Charlie talking and playing Blue Moon Of Kentucky both a la Monroe and in Presley style. Search on the song title to get it, though, I should warn that it contains what, in these days would be seen as very non PC language but used to be common in the southern states of America.

Charlie pestered Sam Phillips to let him get behind the mike and eventually he got his way. Tracks for the single Peepin’ Eyes/I’ve Been Deceived were recorded in February and March ’55 and released the following month. In support were Sun country stalwarts Quinton Claunch (guitar) and Bill Cantrell (fiddle) plus Stan Kesler on steel guitar and Marcus Van Story on string bass. The record was released on the short lived Sun subsidiary, Flip. Both tracks are firmly in the country tradition with Peepin’ Eyes, written by Charlie himself, probably owing something to Bill Monroe. British writer Colin Escott sees it as proto rockabilly but I’d beg to differ. The flip, a slow weepie written by Cantrell and Claunch, is more in the Hank Williams tradition propelled by excellent fiddle and steel guitar. I find the high register nasal vocal that Charlie adopts for the pair, more in keeping on this one. I’d add that there’s no trace here of Charlie’s later vocal gymnastics apart from one touch of melisma and a little quiver that enters his voice on the very last line.

Charlie’s second single, Defrost Your Heart/A Wedding Gown Of White (which came out on Sun) coupled two more country slowies from the pens of Cantrell and Claunch treated in a broadly similar manner to I’ve Been Deceived. The difference is that Charlie already sounds looser on these and more natural and expressive. I’ve selected the B-side as representative of this phase, though both are good. Listen carefully and you’ll notice the occasional swoop and drops from high to low register. Charlie was beginning to start using that voice in earnest.

No sign of rockabilly yet and, hard as it may be to believe, these were the only official records by Charlie to be released on Sun/Flip. However, over the same period, late ’55 and early ’56, he was laying down material that was definitely rockabilly styled. Much of the evidence for this has disappeared due to Phillips’ habit of overwriting used tapes but several versions of Bottle To The Baby exist, plus a version of Corrine Corrina which was actually cut just before the well known Joe Turner version saw release.

Fed up with lack of progress (and officially out of contract) Charlie left Sun in March ’56 and switched to near neighbour Meteor Records. He took with him Jody Chastain (string bass) and Jerry Huffman (lead guitar). It was largely this group who would appear with Charlie on those classic rockabilly singles. The one release on Meteor – yup only one – was Get With It/Tongue-Tied Jill. While I’d love to have included both – and the record is generally viewed as a double A-sider – I’ve restricted myself to Jill as the more original of the pair (see also footnote). Ostensibly, the song is a novelty item about a girl with a speech defect. Charlie chucks in a couple of choruses of vocal gibberish and really lets rip in the last ten seconds. Great stuff and an example of Charlie’s new found vocal prowess. Perhaps I should have said ‘apparently’ new found vocal prowess since we weren’t to hear those unreleased Sun tracks till many decades later. Both tracks have a strong acoustic sound with rhythm guitar most dominant in the mix.

Sales of the Meteor single were good locally but there was no breakthrough to a larger audience. Disappointed, Charlie and the boys moved again, this time to King Records of Cincinnati. There’s a phrase you hear: “Charlie Feathers’ series of classic rockabilly singles from King Records”. In fact there were only four King singles and, of these, numbers three and four were recorded in Nashville and have more of a country/pop feel being adorned with such things as vocal backing – although one side, Nobody’s Woman, was an exception to that approach. But it is singles numbers one and two that collectors used to shell out megabucks for, and it’s largely those two on which the Feathers reputation as all-time rockabilly hero is based. If you know the name Charlie Feathers at all then you’ll know these.

That first pair were Everybody’s Lovin’ My Baby c/w Can’t Hardly Stand It, and One Hand Loose c/w Bottle To The Baby. The bold type, of course, indicates my selection but I could easily have gone for all four of these. There’s proper separation of the instruments on these tracks as opposed to the more sonic murk approach of the Meteor production. Both Chastain and Huffman provide more than adequate support with the latter’s guitar echoing the vocal lines on One Hand Loose. But the spotlight is well and truly on Charlie who unleashes a whole battery of new effects across these records.

Hiccupping is the usual phrase you’ll see but there’s more to it than that; there are near falsetto touches, words coming out faster than he can handle them, broken words, bursts of scat and more. Bottle To The Baby may be the most extreme of the bunch. It certainly represents a successful conclusion to all that work put in at the Sun Studios on the song. It’s also the first appearance of the Feathers habit of revisiting songs from earlier in his career which is something you’ll see a lot of in the man’s discography. It’s a trait that many of the big (and some not so big) blues men have shown over the years but Feathers was more likely than them to find something fresh to bring out in one of his oldies. As an aside it makes selecting tracks via YouTube difficult unless the downloader is assiduous in adding notes giving session info.

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay to these King singles is that they stand on their own without reference to Presley. With the honourable exceptions of Messrs Perkins and Vincent and maybe the ladies, virtually every rockabilly record featured a vocalist aping Elvis. From these two onwards Feathers was very much his own man.

Charlie’s next significant port of call label-wise, was Kay Records back in Memphis, in 1958. Only one record came from the session plus one from the backing team Chastain and Huffman (with the single credited to Jody Chastain). The Feathers’ single was Jungle Fever/Why Don’t You. Unfortunately it didn’t impress label owner Charlie Kahn too much and its release got delayed until 1960. Both sides impress me though. They show a distinct change from both the Meteor and King periods with Jungle Fever boasting a minor key with switches to major, and a near latin rhythm plus two guitars duetting on lead – the sort of thing Link Wray might have tried. Quite a way from basic rockabilly. Why Don’t You was different again. A fast groover with plenty of echo, much like some of those successful rock/pop hybrids at which Sun excelled – think Sonny Burgess or Warren Smith.

Next stop for Charlie was Hi Records, also Memphis based and in its infancy, many years before success with Al Green, Ann Peebles etc. There he recorded Dinky John, a cautionary tale of little boys and real guns. He couldn’t persuade label owner Joe Cuoghi to release the record and it eventually saw the light of day in 1960 via another Memphis label, Wal-May, under the name Charlie Morgan. Further records followed for minor Memphis labels – Today And Tomorrow/Wild Wild Party for Memphis (label name) and Deep Elm Blues/Nobody’s Baby But Mine for Holiday Inn. I have a bit of a soft spot for the last named but it didn’t quite make the list. However, success just didn’t seem to happen and Charlie’s recording activity largely dropped off until he was rediscovered by “Breathless” Dan Coffey from England in 1967. Coffey got our man back into recording and further tracks appeared via various small studios. A few saw release and many found their way onto comps – the Rare And Unissued Recordings series is a good source. Perhaps the most notable recording from this phase is Charlie’s cover of Johnny Burnette’s Tear It Up on which he gives the redoubtable Burnette a run for his money. Coming out in 1968 on the Philwood label, this was a remarkable throwback to the mid fifties. It’s not unlike the earlier Get With It but with a more emphatic Feathers and stronger guitar work.

He recorded plenty more tracks in the seventies, indeed, far too many to cover in any depth so I’ll just single out a couple. Uh Huh Honey came from a session at the Sun Studios in 1973 but was released on the Pompadour label. It was one of the most primitive things that Charlie did, low on lyrics and melody but high on rhythm (mainly from our man’s guitar) and vocal – he switches from normal, to falsetto to bass register, interspersing with grunts and splutters.

After discovering that reference to a couple of obscure late period Feathers’ songs in Greil Marcus’ “Mystery Train”, I had to dig them out. I’ve selected Gone And Left Me Blues, which for me is slightly evocative of El’s Mystery Train. It’s a medium pace blues with the rhythm carried on that guitar again. Charlie cuts back on vocal effects and instead adopts a high and lonesome sound. This one and its companion, Rockin’ With Red, were recorded at the Phillips International Studio in Memphis but you’ll have a job finding them. They were included in an LP entitled Johnny Burnette`s Rock And Roll Trio And Their Rockin` Friends From Memphis which, unfortunately, hasn’t made the transition to CD. The title is a tad deceptive: Johnny Burnette doesn’t appear; he was, of course dead at the time. It’s rather vaguely a tribute album and I can’t comment any more since I don’t own it.

As most rock historians will know there was an upsurge in interest in rockabilly in the UK and mainline Europe in the seventies. This was fuelled in part by that Feathers Tear It Up release plus the Rockabilly Kings LP shared between Charlie and Mac Curtis. As a consequence of this interest a concert was arranged, staged on two nights, 30th April and 1st May 1977, starring four of the original rockabilly heroes (for more on this see “How To Buy” below). Our Mr Feathers was one of the four with son Bubba on lead guitar. All of Charlie’s tracks are worth hearing but I’m specifically bringing to your attention, his version of I Forgot To Remember To Forget. This was one for which Charlie shares writing credits with Stan Kesler. The same Mr Kesler has subsequently stated that Charlie didn’t really do very much but he, Stan, gave him half of the credit for singing on the demo disc. Regardless of that I guess this has to go do down as a personal favourite. Unlike the demo, which is available in comps, Charlie has those mannerisms in place and he’s clearly enjoying himself. In technical terms there’s no match between this and the splendid Elvis version – his first big ballad in fact – but the Feathers cut, at only 1:50, is our man in a nutshell; incisive, impactful and intense.

I’m jumping next to another album, the self-titled Charlie Feathers recorded for the Elektra label in 1990. This was also cut at the Phillips International Studio (or, the Sam Phillips Recording Service, Memphis as it’s listed) and it had several ex Sun alumnae in the support team – Roland Janes, James Van Eaton and that man Stan Kesler again. The 14 tracks were roughly evenly split between old Feathers reruns – but not the more obvious ones – and covers, with the latter ranging from Woody Guthrie to George Jones with Elvis and Jerry Lee somewhere in between. I like this set and would put on record my thanks to Thom Jurek whose positive review in AllMusic pointed me in the right direction.

My first selection is the one new original on the album (or at least I think it is), We Can’t Seem To Remember To Forget. It’s not, as one might expect, a sequel or prequel to I Forgot To Remember To Forget, though it could be Charlie saying, “it’s my damn song Stan Kesler, don’t you forget it!” It does share a roughly similar albeit more meandering melody and tempo to the earlier song, but the treatment is more David Lynch than country cum rockabilly. Charlie puts on his Mr Bassman voice and his enunciation is soaked in Tennessee molasses – so much so that it’s hard to make out what he’s on about at times. There’s as much speaking as singing. The subject matter is nostalgia for those early days in Memphis but there aren’t any rose tinted glasses. The word play on Presley/Kesler’s You’re Right, I’m Left, She’s Gone which Charlie uses as a punch line (and which is also in this set!), makes it abundantly clear that not all such memories are happy ones. Presley himself plus Cash get affectionate references: “You know that boy lived next door, he keeps on singing ’bout that Teenage Queen.”

My last selection overall also comes from the Charlie Feathers album. It’s a rerun but a rerun that justifies the concept of reruns; if some of Dylan’s reruns sounded this good I’d be ecstatic. It tracks right back to single #2 – Charlie visiting the distant past again – and the new version could almost be a different song. No more comment from me, just take a listen to Defrost Your Heart (flipside of A Wedding Gown Of White), first the 1956 version and then the one from 1990.

 

Charlie Feathers died on the 29th of August, 1998 of complications from a stroke induced coma. Could he ever have been a big star in both sales and critical terms? The answer to the first, in my view is no. His performances were simply too unusual and, in the main, too rough to be acceptable. With the rockabilly label attached to him he was also not likely to find favour with the alt-country audience. In critical terms he certainly has fans though in putting this Toppermost together I was a little disappointed to find a relative lack of reviews from amateur critics on Amazon. I’d like to think that Charlie got some satisfaction from the international appearances plus his eventual arrival on a major record label.

Rockabilly was always a strange phenomenon. Far more constrained in range than either of its forebears, blues and country music, but with an appeal to successive generations. In part that must be down to the presence of a very tiny handful of performers who transcended the genre and made mincemeat of those constraints. Presley was one, albeit far to briefly. Feathers was another and, in his case, once he’d got it he stuck with it (and there’s almost a pun there!). I have no doubt that future music historians will see rockabilly as folk music and Charlie as part of that old weird America to borrow a phrase from Greil. Maybe he could be up there with artists such as Dock Boggs and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Maybe.

 

How to buy Charlie Feathers

The fact that so much of Charlie’s best work was issued on singles means that, almost inevitably, one’s first port of call when building a representative collection of his work is going to be a compilation. I have to add though, that, as in so many other cases, no single comp will give you everything you want. The first one to take the challenge really seriously was issued as recently as 1998 on the small Revenant label; Get With It: The Essential Recordings (1954-1969). This 2 CD, 42 tracks set, did a very good job, covering much of the released and unreleased work of the period. I’ve not laid my hands on it but the inclusion of essays from Peter Guralnick, Jim Dickinson and Colin Escott make it a tempting proposition even at the rather extortionate prices currently seen on Amazon.

A more recent and cheaper alternative is Can’t Hardly Stand It on the El Toro label which was released in 2009. It’s similar but not identical to the Revenant album, containing the essential Sun and King material, several of the other singles plus alternate takes of many of the tracks.

The more dedicated Charlie Feathers fan might have already invested in the 3 volume Rare And Unissued Recordings series released separately on Norton in 2008. The bad news is the lack of information given, which, coupled with the lack of sequencing, is distinctly detrimental, making it difficult to ascertain the source of many of these tracks particularly given Charlie’s tendency to recut titles, often more than once, and at any stage in his career. The good news though, is that there’s lots of great music present plus the bonus of an interview with Charlie broken into three parts.

The true Feathers fan will already own the Rockabilly Kings album which was originally issued on vinyl in the UK in 1974. It included all 8 Feathers King tracks plus another 8 from Mac Curtis from the same label. It’s now available in CD format from Ace Records.

Of the relatively few studio albums, critics seem to agree that the 1991 Elektra self-titled set is probably the best of the bunch (though I’d add that I’ve also heard positive noises about 1991’s I Ain’t Done Yet. I’d recommend Charlie Feathers but maybe I’m biased.

The Live In London album is very good. It was recorded at the Hibernian Club in London on 9th September 1990. It’s also on the cheap side. My preference, however, would be for the Four Legends Of Rock ‘n’ Roll set which is a re-release of the 1977 London concert LP with more tracks. Indeed an in form Charlie now gets a generous eight tracks. Throw in the fact that you also get Warren Smith, Jack Scott and the relatively lightweight Buddy Knox for your money and this represents a pretty good investment. Also throw in the fact that you get Charlie’s version of Good Rockin’ Tonight and that’s another reason to part with some cash. I’m not sure how the (2013) release of this set escaped me but it might be a good time to take my own advice and supplement my vinyl version of the original!

 

Quotes

“Charlie Feathers is the main reason there is and was Sun Records” Johnny Cash (from advert for the Revenant compilation)

“Commercial failure also befell the artistically successful discs of Charlie Feathers who became a cult figure for enthusiasts of Memphis music.” Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins, “Catalyst: The Sun Records Story” 1975 edition

“Charlie was a man of many parts (and many yelps, and many glottal stops), who could not have believed more firmly in himself or his destiny – he possessed a wonderful gift for invention and fabulation, which manifested itself both in his music and his life.” Peter Guralnick (in relation to his book, “Lost Highway”)

“He is a man haunted by the past eternally, trying to make it a renewable present, and offering the truth in how forgotten it all is in his delivery. Feathers died in the late 90s, but he leaves behind an enduring testament to his particular brilliance as a frighteningly intense singer and canny songwriter.” Thom Jurek (in the AllMusic review of the Feathers Elektra album)

“It’s no use to just go thumping that beat, you’ve got to play around it. I like most music, but those old country and rock songs get to me most. I try to bring a little of that feel into my songs. That blues man, when you take that out of country you ain’t got no more country music.” Charlie Feathers (as quoted in “Catalyst: The Sun Records Story”)

 

Footnotes

Get With It, which unfortunately didn’t quite make my Toppermost, is effectively a reworking of Corrine Corrina with fresh words from the boys themselves – the actual credit is Feathers/Chastain/Huffman. It’s also noticeable that guitarist Jerry Huffman borrows a little from Luther Perkins on the break.

A couple of Feathers performances, Can’t Hardly Stand It and That Certain Female have achieved recognition through their presence on the soundtracks to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2. I should add, since it doesn’t get mentioned above, that That Certain Female was originally released on the Rollin’ Rock label in 1974.

There was reference to covers on Charlie’s Tear It Up single. Our hero showed a notable propensity for such practices particularly in his middle years. There was definitely a “if that ole boy can do it, I can” attitude not unlike that of his ex Sun stablemate Jerry Lee Lewis but maybe without quite the same success/failure ratio. In his time Charlie had a crack at Folsom Prison Blues, He’ll Have To Go (a very strange one), The Wild Side Of Life, Milk Cow Blues and more.

In the late seventies or early eighties I was lucky enough to pick up a Feathers compilation LP (at the Slough Record Centre – the price tag’s still on it!) entitled simply Rock And Roll. It had a massive 22 tracks including the Sun releases and many of the singles from all those tiny labels mainly in and around Memphis. In fact the only stuff that was really missing was the King material. I guess I lucked in there. What it did teach me – and bear in mind we didn’t have the internet then to tell us things – was that the Feathers recording history wasn’t half unusual.

I managed not to mention in my main text that Charlie recorded quite a lot of material at home – remember he did pick up studio expertise in the Sun days – and was in the habit of selling such CDs at gigs.

Dylan and the Band had a go at I Forgot To Remember To Forget, and their version can be found in The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 Box Set

I’m indebted for much of the material above to the very comprehensive write-up on Charlie from Black Cat Rockabilly and I couldn’t have put this thing together without this excellent sessionography

 

Charlie Feathers (1932–1998)

 

Charlie Feathers – Rockabilly Hall of Fame

Charlie Feathers discography

Charlie Feathers – a listing of his songs

Charlie Feathers – Rockabilly’s Main Man

Charlie Feathers biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens had a long career in IT – programming, consultancy, management etc. – before retiring in 2007. After spending time on the usual retiree type activities he eventually got round to writing on one of his favourite subjects, popular music, particularly, but not only, the sort that was around in his youth. He gained experience at ‘the writing thing’ by placing CD reviews on Amazon. This led to his first book “RocknRoll” which was published for Kindle in 2015. He followed this up with “London Rocks” in July 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #551

6 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Sep 11, 2016

    Dave, thanks for this superb introduction to a fine singer and a neglected pioneer of early rock and roll/rockabilly. Have a King compilation already (which runs to about 25 minutes and is the shortest cd, I think, in my collection). However this list gives me the opportunity to explore his work further. Thanks again…

    • Dave Stephens
      Sep 12, 2016

      Thanks Andrew. The King material is probably his best known (that’s ignoring any effects of Kill Bill) and arguably his best, but as you’ve found out, it was sparse.

  2. Keith Shackleton
    Sep 12, 2016

    So once upon a time I used to DJ a digital jukebox in a pub in Brighton (hey, didn’t everyone), and the landlord was a rockabilly fan, so I looked up which Charlie songs I used to play, and it was the two Kill Bill songs, Jill, Loose, Bottle, and Why Don’t You. So I’m onside with you. Elektra did a good job round about that time with roots and rock and roll, I recall a neat Johnnie Johnson record in that series.

    • Dave Stephens
      Sep 12, 2016

      Ta Keith. I confess that the Elektra set was a surprise to me but it’s always good to have pleasing surprises when putting these things together and I find it happens more frequently than I would have expected.

  3. John Denton
    Dec 30, 2016

    Thanks for yet another excellent piece. May I tell you of one of my regrets? Back in circa 1977,Charlie was part of a rockabilly package touring England (Warren Smith was there,too). My friend Dennis had approached Charlie and invited him to a small party at his house – pre-gig – in Charlie’s honour. I was away,unable to attend the party or indeed the evening’s show. But apparently the party was a terrific afternoon with enjoyable jamming of Charlie’s tunes. Drat,how I wish I’d been there. Ah well… Thank you for your top ten. Charlie had a tune out in the 60s called,I think,What a Party. Yes,one of my regrets not meeting the man.

    • Dave Stephens
      Dec 31, 2016

      That would have been one hell of a memory – shame.

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