Tracks on this list are by Jimmy Donley unless otherwise stated (in brackets)
|Track||Album / Single|
|Born To Be A Loser||Decca 9-30574|
|Please Baby Come Home||Decca 9-30574|
|The Shape You Left Me In||Decca 9-30887|
|Please Mr Sandman||Tear Drop 3002|
|Think It Over||Chess 1843|
|Rockin' Bicycle||In The Key Of Heartbreak CD|
|Sweet Dreams (Tommy McLain)||MSL 197|
|I'm Leaving It Up To You (Dale & Grace)||Montel 921|
|Stop And Think It Over (Dale & Grace)||Montel 922|
|Prisoner's Song (Warren Storm)||Nasco 45-6015|
Contributor: Dave Stephens
There’s a pain inside my heart dear
And a burning deep within
If I can’t be your lover
Won’t you let me be your friend
Jimmy Donley killed himself in 1963 after a very troubled life. He was 33. He’d been married five times and was prone to alcoholism and bouts of domestic violence. A prolific song writer, he would sell his songs to anyone for cash in order to subsidise his drinking. As a consequence many of his songs, particularly as his condition worsened, do not have his name appearing in the credits.
His most famous record, though it never achieved hit status, was Born To Be A Loser, which seemed to sum him up.
And that may just be the most negative introduction you’ve ever seen on Toppermost. So there had to be a positive side. His epitaph in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, belatedly written in 2006, opened with the following statement:
“There’s been a whole host of artists over the years whose critical acknowledgement has far outshone their actual talent. Conversely, there’s been plenty of acts who have received scant rewards for their undoubted ability. Jimmy Donley falls firmly in the second category. A talented performer and songwriter, he sits on the swamp pop side of rock ‘n’ roll, and his page here in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame is long overdue.”
and, the writer also made the comment:
“Forty years on, the name lives on through the jukeboxes of south east Texas and Louisiana.”
He was born James Kenneth Donley on the 17th August 1929, in Jonestown, Mississippi which makes him a big exception to the rule of all swamp pop performers having been born and raised in South Louisiana or East Texas. His father was an alcoholic and a racist and Jimmy’s childhood was anything but happy. There’s a story that, at the tender age of three, he took his father’s gun and fired at his equally young cousin for refusing to get off his tricycle. In spite of discouragement from his father, he got involved in music from an early age. He left school at the age of 14 to work on the docks in nearby Gulfport at the insistence of his father. Jimmy was called up for his national service in 1948 but started to show signs of schizophrenia and turned to drugs for support, which led him to a dishonourable discharge in 1949. Back in Mississippi he started singing in clubs. He also managed to get through four marriages in four years with each marriage breaking down as Jimmy’s social skills seemed to more and more mimic those of his father.
In 1956, he was spotted by a local promoter who took him to Decca Records who gave him a contract. Which all sounds too good to be true but it happened. Decca sent him to Nashville and gave him the A team – Owen Bradley, producer, Boots Randolph, sax, Floyd Cramer, piano, Hank Garland or Chet Atkins on guitar, and so on. There were eight Decca singles and you know the rest: they didn’t sell, although single #4 did quite well regionally. That single coupled Born To Be A Loser, a number that sounded so much like a swamp pop ballad that you would have sworn it had been produced in South Louisiana, with a neat bluesy rocker, Please Baby Come Home, which whilst up tempo, followed a not dissimilar theme to the A-side.
In respect of much of Donley’s Decca output, Phil Davies, writing for Black Cat Rockabilly notes: “Heartfelt ballads like I’m Alone, Our Love and What Must I Do (with little sister getting a co-writer credit) were of the quality of the then popular Everly/Nelson style million sellers and sometimes sound as if the young Ronald Wycherly (aka Billy Fury) had hijacked his Mersey tug boat and crossed the big pond.”
I’ve selected one more from Jimmy’s Decca phase, his trademark rocker, The Shape You Left Me In. OK it’s not swamp but it’s as good as, if not better than, a lot of stuff that was coming out of Nashville at the time. A slow beginning – not that unusual on rockers – but also something that was rather more rare, a slow ending as well.
In 1959, Jimmy married Lillie Mae, his fifth and final wife, and the lady who would stick with him till the end. The Decca relationship, though, was breaking up, in part due to Jimmy’s private life which was out of control, and he was let go in 1960.
In 1961, Jimmy spent a short spell with Ace Records of Jackson, Mississippi (not to be confused with the British Ace Records who in later years did a splendid job releasing the his material). Reportedly, four songs were recorded but none were released. I’ve been frustrated by not being able to find any trace of these recordings.
In 1962, he signed with the Tear Drop label run by the ubiquitous Huey Meaux (see link at foot of post). A few singles got issued, many of which were in the swamp pop idiom. They sold well locally but that was all. Jimmy himself, meanwhile, was going further and further downhill. He continued selling songs, but often directly to Meaux for the price of a bottle. Hence the lack of the Donley name in the credits on most of his better known later numbers like Please Mr Sandman and Think It Over. These are the singles I’ve picked to represent the period. Both are archetypal swamp ballads with Sandman standing out due to a prominent organ which hovers just this side of being too shrill.
Please, please Mr. Sandman
Do not let me dream alone
For I’ve been so lonely
I want to be someone’s turtle dove
It was also during this timeframe that Donley wrote songs for, met, and befriended lifelong hero Fats “Call me Antoine” Domino. A fascinating contrast can be heard between the Donley demo of Rockin’ Bicycle, sung to his own guitar backing only, and the fully orchestrated Domino version.
Fats recorded seven of Jimmy’s songs.
It’s worth a listen to a couple more Donley tracks to illustrate the fact that his range definitely did extend further than swampies. First up Let Me Told You (not a mistype – his grammar) with, presumably overdubbed, fuzz guitar, rampant piano and New Orleans rhythm section:
I Really Got The Blues is a really intriguing one. There’s a version on YouTube which consists of Jimmy wailing away to his own guitar – think slightly modernised Lightnin’ Hopkins:
Version 2 which is the one on the Ace Records UK Donley collection (see Footnotes) contains a pianist who sounds remarkably like Smash era Charlie Rich and there’s a horn break instead of Jimmy’s guitar break at approx 1:20. Even more remarkably, Charlie’s voice has some of the Rich timbre. What you can do with overdubbing!
After Donley’s death, Huey Meaux continued to release material he had “in the can” plus demo tracks with overdubbed backing. While this undoubtedly benefitted Huey’s cash flow, it also helped to keep Jimmy Donley’s name alive. Certainly, he’s still a legend in parts of the South, and his music lives on alongside those numbers from the cajun boys who were his peers.
There were covers released of several of Donley’s songs. The version of Think It Over from Tommy McLain is well worth a listen. While the production retains that organ it’s McLain’s soul-influenced voice that makes the record:
Tommy McLain was in a group called the Vel-Tones and then moved to the Boogie Kings, one of the big swamp bands, where he played bass and sometimes sang solo. For more on the Boogie Kings see Swamp Pop #5 (coming soon). One of Tommy’s specialties was slower but more intense versions of country songs. Don Gibson’s Sweet Dreams is his most well remembered single and justly so since it got to #15 in the Billboard Hot 100. I’d Be A Legend In My Time was another Gibson song and a not so successful attempt to replicate this success. Though not really swamp pop in a conventional musical sense these records do have that overhang of emotion that characterises swamp ballads.
Not to be confused with Think It Over was another song in the swamp pop vein entitled Stop And Think It Over. This one was released by a couple called Dale and Grace.
Dale (Houston) was born and brought up in Southern Mississippi but was working in a bar in Louisiana when he met Grace (Broussard) in 1963. Both had already been singing solo in clubs for several years. It was record exec Sam Montel who put the pair together, convinced that the mix of voices would work. Their first single was a cover of R&B duo Don and Dewey’s Leavin’ It All Up To You. While their version of the tune adds strings it’s among the best of the boy/girl pairings of the early 60s. The record did extremely well, picking up the #1 position in the national pop chart and going on to sell multi-million copies. Stop And Think It Over was their follow-up.
To potentially add further confusion to the theme of thinking things over, there was also a gent called Warren Storm who covered both Think It Over and Stop And Think It Over though neither was released at the time.
Warren Storm was born Warren Schexnider in Abbeville, LA in February, 1937. He began his career at the age of 12 filling in for his father who was drummer, fiddler and accordion player in a cajun band called the Rayne-Bo Ramblers. Warren later played drums with Larry Brasso’s Rhythm-aires and the Herb Landry band before forming his own band, the Fats Domino influenced, Wee-Wows. On graduation from high school, he signed a contract with Jay Miller to become a performer and session drummer for Excello Records (see Footnote 4 to Swamp Pop #1).
His first record as a singer (given the nom-de-plume, Warren Storm), was Prisoner’s Song backed with a rocker entitled Mama, Mama, Mama. The record sold a quarter of a million copies and paved the way for many other swamp pop artists. There was no follow up success and Warren joined Rod Bernard in the Shondells in 1962. The Prisoner’s Song was a hillbilly number in its original incarnation by the song’s composer Vernon Dalhart in 1925, and there were later versions from Bill Monroe and Hank Snow.
There was also a version from Fats Domino which, according to 45Cat, would appear to have come out a month before Warren’s record, but I checked with my trusty copy of John Broven’s “South To Louisiana” (see Bibliography) and came away with the impression that the opposite had occurred i.e. that it was the Domino team who were being opportunistic. Whatever, here’s Warren, with Mama, Mama, Mama as a bonus.
Warren Storm, who was appearing till relatively recently as a member of Lil’ Band O’ Gold, is sometimes referred to as a godfather of swamp pop.
1. An attempt at a definition of Swamp Pop can be found in the Rod Bernard Toppermost which I’ve informally titled Swamp Pop #1. Keeping up that theme, this one becomes Swamp Pop #3.
2. There’s a CD of Donley’s Decca material available entitled The Shape You Left Me In and a very comprehensive 2 CD set from Ace Records UK covering the Tear Drop and Crazy Cajun stuff, In The Key Of Heartbreak.
4. There’s an anecdote I picked up from the Hound Dog blog on Donley. Apparently when Jimmy was at Decca he threatened Owen Bradley at gunpoint to “take those bitches off my record”. One assumes that he was referring to the Anita Kerr singers who sang back up on his Decca sides. He had a point but rather a forceful way of making it.
5. When Huey Meaux ran into Owen Bradley at a DJ convention in Nashville shortly after he (Meaux) had signed Donley, Bradley told him “You signed yourself up another Hank Williams”.
(Source: Black Cat Bone blog – “Got an hour? Let me told you about Jimmy Donley”)
6. The song Think It Over was written to Lillie Mae on one of several occasions when she’d left him.
7. Please Mr Sandman was covered by San Antonio East Side group, Sunny and the Sunliners. It’s very likely that Doug Sahm, who was born and bred in the city, first heard the song via this version.
8. The Donley song Baby Heaven Sent Me You was covered by the Texas Tornados on their first album. There’s a note in John Broven’s “South To Louisiana” that tex-mex bands loved swamp pop.
9. The Warren Storm versions of Think It Over and Stop And Think It Over can be found on a Warren Storm compilation called The Crazy Cajun Recordings: The King Of The Dance Halls.
“Born To Be A Loser: The Jimmy Donley Story” by Johnnie Allan & Bernice Larson Webb (1992). Currently would appear to be prohibitively expensive but it comes recommended.
“South To Louisiana: The Music Of The Cajun Bayous” by John Broven (1983). The book covers all types of Louisiana roots music not just swamp pop but it does it extremely well. Highly recommended.
Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is available as an ebook and is described by one reviewer as ‘probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across’. “RocknRoll” contains further reflections on Swamp Pop in its 1,000+ pages. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” this year, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX.