The Fendermen

TrackSingle / Album
Mule Skinner BluesSoma 1137
TortureSoma 1137
Beach PartySoma 1142
High NoonMule Skinner Blues

 

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The Fendermen photo 1

The Fendermen: Phil Humphrey, Jim Sundquist

 

THE FENDERMEN:

ANATOMY OF A ONE HIT WONDER #19

Artists who flickered briefly then disappeared.

One Hit Wonders, the media called them. Part of the fascination of fifties and sixties music.

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

 

 

It’s only Rock and Roll but I like it

I don’t think Mick specifically had this record in mind when he wrote those words, possibly aided by Keith or Ron, but they’re applicable. One of the more absurd records, outside of pure novelty items, to breach the US Top Ten in 1960 or even any year up till then. Absurd, yes, but delightfully absurd. And while it didn’t do quite so well over here – a relatively measly #32 – the record certainly had its advocates including yours truly.

I’m unashamedly borrowing some words from Jon “Mojo” Mills writing in AllMusic to describe the performance: “Jimmie Rodgers meets the Ventures on a three day bender”. Musicologists and maybe a few other readers will be aware that Jimmie wrote the song. Known originally as Blue Yodel #8 and released in 1930, it’s one of those boundary blurring numbers that went some way towards making Jimmie stand out from most of his contemporaries. In structure it’s a blues but with each verse ending in a sequence of yodels that could only have come from the depths of white country music. Jimmie extends certain words and chucks the occasional falsetto into the bits that did have lyrics. Accompaniment is from his own guitar only and there’s a break that comes to a point where it almost gives up, only to be rescued magnificently by Jim. A splendid record, up there with the Blue Yodeller’s very best.

Whether the Fendermen based their version on Jimmie’s original we’ll never know. We don’t have any quotes along the lines of “We played that darn 78 until the grooves wore out” but there are plenty of covers the boys could have heard. 1940 saw versions from two venerated country heroes, Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff. According to Wiki, Bill just beat Roy to it in terms of release date. Both versions used a small band with the Monroe version, in particular, emphasising the train style chug-along rhythm. The song was a regular feature in Monroe stage performances; he even re-recorded it as New Mule Skinner Blues in 1950.

I’ve always wondered whether the Fendermen ever heard the version of the song from our own Lonnie Donegan. The Glaswegian East Ender eschewed the yodelling bit altogether but pushed the rhythm button down hard and had a member of the band supplying vocal harmonising and encouragement. This was as close to rock and roll cum rockabilly as skiffle ever got. It also happens to be a great riposte to anyone who says that the Brits did little more musically than copy the yanks prior to the breakthrough of the Beatles. Donegan wasn’t copying anyone here even if he did base his style very largely on what we now term Americana.

The EP on which the performance sat was Donegan On Stage, which featured live recordings from the 25th January 1957 concert in London’s Conway Hall. Apparently the intention was to issue an LP but “so great was the enthusiasm during some of the numbers, that the music was drowned. Hence we are only able to offer these four titles on this EP” (source: EP sleeve notes). I would add that the disc is a joy from start to finish. The excitement generated on the final number, Glory, is still a wonder to behold, with Lonnie spitting notes out and virtually speaking in tongues well before the climax.

One more version of the song deserves mention prior to zeroing in on the Fendermen and it’s the one from the Maddox Brothers and Rose from 1948. The guitar on this effort is definitely electric and while undoubtedly coming from Western Swing origins it’s not that many miles from rockabilly. I see the label in the clip calls the band “the most colourful hillbilly band in America”. I wouldn’t dispute that for the era but unfortunately memories of the band faded all too quickly. That said, this was definitely a record that the Fendermen could have heard. And I’d also mention that the A-side to this little beauty was the group’s version of the Great Hank’s Move It On Over, a precursor to rockabilly fever if ever I heard one and completing a rather wonderful double A-sided single.

Excellent as that record was, I can’t leave the topic of the origins of the Fendermen’s version of Mule Skinner Blues without correcting a misapprehension caused by my love of creating pet theories in the absence of hard evidence. Post initial publication of this Toppermost, I was contacted by a friend who pointed me towards a book written by Barry Mazor entitled “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed The Pop Sounds Of A Century”. Within that book Phil Humphrey states with no equivocation that it was a record called Good Morning Captain (Muleskinner Blues) from Joe D Gibson which was released in 1957 on the tiny Tetra label which was the influence for the Fendermen. The record was only released in New England, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania but it managed to sell 400,000+ 45s and 100,000+ 78s. Those were Joe D’s (or Jody’s as he preferred to be known) own words as recorded in the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame. He went on to say in the same feature that, during his armed service he spent a period of time in England where he was introduced to George Martin by mutual friend Wally Whyton of the Vipers. Jody further claimed that he tutored Martin in the capturing of the twangy sound of the electric guitar on record.

The rockabilly word is often used in descriptions of the Fendermen’s record(s). Outside of the break wherein the spirit of Scotty Moore looms large, there’s nothing in Mule Skinner Blues or the rest of the boys’ tiny handful of other records that sounds like the music from Memphis which erupted in the mid-fifties. The two things that did stand out were the industrial usage of electricity – the only instrumental sounds you heard on the record were the two guys’ Fenders – and the near deranged yodelling which had increased in both amount and volume incorporating high usage of falsetto tones plus aspects of laughing/chuckling. However, it could almost have been taken for a serious interpretation were it not for the “cha cha cha” which closed the whole thing.

The flip was a dual guitar instrumental called Torture which would have encouraged critics to dredge up those Ventures comparisons. There was a snag though: the Ventures didn’t start motoring until 1960 but the Fendermen recorded both sides of this record in Spring 1960 so wouldn’t have heard Walk Don’t Run, the Ventures’ first significant single, which saw release in June of that year (sorry Jon). There’s another difference: if you were to group rock instrumentals on a line with the technically excellent at one end and the greasy, nasty and not necessarily instrumentally proficient on the other, then the Ventures would be towards the former with the Fendermen well in the second grouping, with all the aggression that was usually implicit (that is, judged by this disc – read on). A good effort bearing in mind that it predated a lot of guitar instrumentals and surf guitar hadn’t even been invented yet.

The Fendermen consisted of two men, both armed with Fender guitars, one with a telecaster and the other, a strat. By a weird coincidence, both men were born on the same day, 26th November 1937. Jim Sundquist, who usually took the lead guitar role, was born in Niagara, Wisconsin whereas Phil Humphrey, the vocalist, hailed from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The two met at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and that’s where the duo started. Mule Skinner Blues got included in their act and started getting a good response when they played local bars and clubs. It was arranged to get the number recorded (on Wisconsin label Cuca Records) and it was originally backed by a ballad, Janice, sung by Phil. The last seems to have almost disappeared without trace. It’s not present on any of the Fendermen compilations which have a strong element of predictability about them. Nor is it on YouTube. It is on Spotify though contained on the Rockin’ In Wisconsin: The Cuca Records Story Vol.3 compilation. It’s the final track on that set and stands out as a ballad, albeit in a non worked up format with solitary guitar backing only, following a host of medium to up-tempo rockers (of a not overly inventive post rockabilly and white rock nature).

When copies of Mule Skinner Blues started to shift, distribution issues started to manifest themselves and Soma Records, another indie but from Minneapolis, took over. “Mule Skinner” was re-recorded – the new version added more punch and depth – and the flip was changed: out went Janice and in came Torture.

The follow-up record from Phil and Jim featured a choice of song that was either inspired or anything but, depending on the listener. I tend towards the latter but can understand the rationale. Soma (and maybe the boys?) were looking to capitalise on the USP of “Mule Skinner”, the manic yodelling. That choice, Huey “Piano” Smith’s Don’t You Just Know It featured sections of chanting crossed with scat crossed with gobbledegook, all echoed in a form of call and response, and it had a strong and distinctive rhythm. An obvious place to insert some of that yodel & falsetto stuff. Or not. Take your pick (and maybe I just have too strong an attachment to the original).

Sticking to the formula rigidly, the flip, Beach Party, was, of course, an instro. But it had charm. 1950s charm in that it utilised that old doo wop progression. And dare I say it, with a significant chunk of politeness mixed in, this could even have been the Ventures, complete with a knowing nod towards coming surf music – you rather expect a video with Annette Funicello in it when you see a title like that. There might also have been a tip of the hat to Holly and things like Listen To Me or Words Of Love. Nothing much too it but it does slip down easily.

“Managed to bubble under” were the words used by Blackcat Rockabilly Europe to describe the mark this record made, though the rest of the phrase, “… the Hot 100” put that bubbling in some kind of perspective. It was the last of the boys’ records to leave any kind of mark at all on rock history and was their penultimate single release.

The final single coupled Heartbreakin’ Special with Can’t You Wait. The A-side was a straight crib from Orange Blossom Special made famous by Johnny Cash with the only real difference being the way Humphrey would elongate certain words as he did on “Mule Skinner”. The comparison wasn’t too kind on Phil and Jim; the peerless Cash wins out every time. I’m just surprised that there wasn’t any lawsuit heading in the direction of Humphrey as writer. Maybe no one even noticed the disc at all.

That comment could be even more applicable to the flip which seemed to be an attempt to establish the boys, particularly Phil, in more of a mainstream pop role. The song was written by Dorsey Burnette, brother of Johnny. At this time both of the Burnette brothers were attempting to pursue careers in singing and song writing roles. Can’t You Wait from the Fendermen was totally lacking the excesses, endearing or otherwise, of the A-sides but didn’t really substitute a lot in their place. The medium tempo number was properly sung and not lacking in sincerity but there was little to commend it to the pop buyer. If there was any excess on this one, it was an excess of sobriety. A rather damning statement on the record is that the clip I selected on YT has been up for two years but has only had 18 views, two of which were mine.

Jim and Phil split after the third Soma single though the Fendermen name limped on, in a fashion. The Blackcat Rockabilly Europe write-up on the duo has a couple of chunky paragraphs on the subject of “the later years” so I’ll direct the reader to them. Very little of what was produced has found its way onto YouTube and what I have found isn’t that interesting.

Which is a bit of a downer way to finish.

 

The Fendermen Mule Skinner Blues

But I’ve held one thing back. Jim and Phil did make an LP whilst at Soma. Much of the content was predictable – five of the single sides (with the only omission being Can’t You Wait) plus three instrumentals and four vocal covers. There is one track that does stand out and it could have made a single. The original for this was a song variously known as The Ballad Of High Noon or Do Not Forsake Me. The single, from Tex Ritter, has it both ways and calls itself High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me). In the unlikely event the reader hasn’t heard it, can I urge you to do so now. I hadn’t listened to this for years and was surprised at the restraint shown in the arrangement. Not the sort of thing you expect from a movie theme, which, of course, this was.

The Fendermen’s version (which gets the title High Noon) is a complete and utter change. After an effective semi-spoken intro from Phil in his sombre mode, it breaks into a rock ballad with Jim’s guitar featuring very strongly – he even uses Eddie Cochran slide-ups in places. Phil plays it straight all the way through and his voice suits the song superbly. There’s none of the demented chuckling or falsetto touches. It’s clumsy in places but as that guitar rumbles off into the sunset you’re left thinking that was quite something!

And the Fendermen were quite something.

They had their five minutes of fame and didn’t do anything else of any great note other than the single. But, that record reminded us that a couple of guys from out in the sticks and without a vast amount of talent could still create something memorable which attracted words like “raucous” and “appealing”, often in the same sentence. What’s more they broke through at a time when our then elders and betters, not to mention the recording industry elite, were setting back in their chairs saying “thankfully that rock and roll thing is over”. Boy were they wrong.

 

The Fendermen poster

 

Jim Sundquist (1937-2013)

Phil Humphrey (1937-2016)

 

The Fendermen at Discogs

The Fendermen at Rock n Roll Graffiti website

The Fendermen biography (iTunes)

 

ONE HIT WONDERS ON TOPPERMOST
#1 Jody Reynolds, #2 James Ray, #3 Richie Barrett, #4 Mickey & Sylvia, #5 Scott McKenzie, #6 Blue, #7 Chris Kenner, #8 Dawn Penn, #9 Shep and the Limelites, #10 The Poni-Tails, #11 The La’s, #12 Thomas Wayne, #13 Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford, #14 Carl Mann, #15 Duncan Browne, #16 Harold Dorman, #17 Ned Miller, #18 Gary Shearston, #19 The Fendermen, #20 Jimmy Radcliffe, #21 Joe Dolce

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Eddie Cochran, Lonnie Donegan, Buddy Holly, Bill Monroe, Tex Ritter

TopperPost #686

2 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Dec 27, 2017

    Love this one. It’s many years since The Fendermen crossed my mind. Van Morrison often does Muleskinner Blues live, and recorded it with Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber on The Skiffle Sessions, and later on the Austin City Limits live album. Clearly his comes from Lonnie Donegan. What’s puzzling me is Jim Sundquist. It’s an unusual name, and I’m sure I’ve seen it on the session list for an album I know well, but I cannot think which one, and Wikipedia didn’t help me. I have a couple of obscure albums from guys I know from that area and checked them, but no. Wiki says he ended up in a gospel duo, but I suspect there’s a session history too. (Also I added a note to Dave’s comment on Eddie Cochran).

    • Dave Stephens
      Jan 1, 2018

      Thanks for your kind comment Peter. Glad you enjoyed it. I did too and I hope a little off that came through. When Our Esteemed Editor and I first kicked around the concept of One Hit Wonder Toppermosts the Fendermen came up and I had a quick look at them. Didn’t seem to be much there so I put the thought to one side. However more recently had another look and almost dared myself to make something of it. And, yes I know I added some Donegan padding but I didn’t need much of an excuse to put in a slightly gratuitous plug for that particular EP. I’d add that, following your comment on Jim I did some digging but didn’t find anything of great interest.

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